Butterflies, Bubbles, and Birds: Christopher Merrett

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Christopher Merrett (1614–1695) is something of a hero to wine lovers, as we know him to be the first person to figure out that you could add sugar to a bottle of wine, cause it to re-ferment, and make bubbles! Put in more technical terms, he is acknowledged as the first person to deliberately create a sparkling wine via the addition of sugar.

So, cheers to Christopher Merrett, on that merit alone! However, as is generally the case with these scientists of yore, he accomplished much more than just bottling bubbles: he was, in fact, a member of the Fellowship of the Royal Society and studied metallurgy, glass making, plants, birds, and butterflies.

Merret was born in Gloucestershire in the southwest of England, and earned his medical degree at Gloucester Hall (which later became Worcester College of the University of Oxford). He practiced medicine in London, becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, and later became a founding Fellow of the Royal Society—the full name of which is officially “the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.”

In other words, Merret became a founding member of the oldest “learned society” in the world. The Royal Society views its role as “promoting science and its benefits, recognizing excellence in science, supporting outstanding science, and providing scientific advice for policy.”

Christopher Merrett

Merrett was a keen scientific observer of the natural world and became quite famous for publishing one of the earliest taxonomies of the plants, animals, and minerals of the British Isles. Published in 1666, this work—Pinax Rerum Naturalium Britannicarum—is now acknowledged as the earliest work to contain a complete list of the birds and butterflies of England. He also had an interest in glass making and translated Antonio Neri’s L’Arte Vetraria (“The Art of Glassmaking”—written in 1612) from Italian to English, while adding 147 pages of his own.

A few things going on in the scientific community as well as English society helped to lead Merrett to his discovery. For one, the English glass-making industry had become quite adept at producing hard, durable glass through the use of coal (which burns hotter) rather than wood for fires. English-produced bottled were thus sturdier—and less likely to burst—than French bottles. In addition, the English imported cork from Portugal to seal their bottles while the French were still using wooden stoppers and cloth. Finally, the English had already acquired a taste for apple cider, which was sweet and flavorful—more so than the wine imported from France.

As such, English people became accustomed to adding molasses and sugar to their imported French wines. Soon enough, Christopher Merrett—a keen observer of the natural world if ever there was one—noted that if you added sugar or molasses to French wine, and stored it in a sturdy, coal-fired English glass bottle stoppered with a tight-sealing Portuguese Cork, you ended up with a lively, flavorful, bubbly wine that was a tasty as English cider. That was an “a-ha” moment if ever there was one!

The title page of Merrett’s Pinax Rerum Naturalium Britannicarum

In 1662, Merrett delivered an eight-page paper to the Royal Society detailing the use of sugar or molasses to give wine or cider a bit of fizz. In the words of Merrett, this was “to make them brisk and sparkling.” Keep in mind that this paper was delivered in 1662, several decades before Dom Perignon’s famous “Come quickly, I am drinking stars!” moment, alleged to have occurred in 1697.

Merrett was only mildly interested in wine, and soon returned to his observations on the rest on the natural world. In addition to his studies of birds and butterflies, he went on to present several more papers on many topics to the Royal Society. These included papers on such diverse topics as fruit trees, tin mining, and coastal geography. His interests, it seems, knew no bounds.

Note: Much of the information about Christopher Merrett and sparkling wine came to light courtesy of the British wine writer Tom Stevenson.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

Five Fast Facts about Agave

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Today is Cinco de Mayo, a day to celebrate all things Mexican, and more specifically, a day to commemorate the Mexican Army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

Here in the USA, we typically frame our annual celebration of Mexican culture in terms of food and beverage (well, especially the beverages) so it is likely that a great deal of tequila and mezcal will be consumed today and all through the night. As such, I thought I would take this opportunity to write a post all about Agave. Agave is (of course) the amazing plant that gave us tequila and mescal, but there is so much more to know about agave.

#1: Depending on how you break it down, there are somewhere between 130 and 208 species of Agave (it’s an unwieldy family that defies classification in some ways). Agave is a type of monocot (a group of flowering plants whose seeds typically contain only one embryonic leaf). Agave is native to Mexico and some parts of the American southwest, as well as parts of South America. Agave has been successfully introduced to Europe and South Africa.

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#2: Contrary to popular belief, Agave is not a cactus, but rather it is a member of the Agavaceae family and closely related to both the lily family (amaryllis) and asparagus. Agave is, however, a succulent (loosely defined as a group of plants with thick, spongy leaves that store water). So, agave is a succulent, and cactus is a succulent, but agave is not a cactus.

#3: According to William H. Prescott (American historian and botanist, 1796–1859), agave was used by the population of Mexico for more than just beverages. A portion of his book, The History of the Conquest of Mexico, (1843) reads: “Its bruised leaves afforded a paste from which paper was manufactured…its leaves further supplied an impenetrable thatch for the more humble dwellings. Thread, of which coarse stuffs were made, and strong cords were drawn from its tough and twisted fibers; pins and needles were made from the thorns at the extremity of its leaves; and the root, when properly cooked, was converted into a palatable and nutritious food.”

#4: Agave is monocarpic – meaning they die after flowering. So whether the plant is allowed to grow its flower stalk and spread its seeds, or if the flower stalk is removed to allow the stem to swell (as for use in tequila), the plant is still going to die after reaching sexual maturity. Luckily for the agave, most plants take six to eight years to reach this point, and some—such as Agave americana— take much longer. Agave americana is often referred to as the “century plant” because it supposedly takes a century to bloom, but in reality it is closer to 15 to 20 years.

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#5: Agave nectar (more accurately called agave syrup) is a sweetener commercially produced from several species of agave, including Agave tequiliana and Agave salmiana. Agave syrup is sweeter than honey and tends to be less viscous. Most agave syrup comes from Mexico and South Africa. Agave syrup has been marketed as a “healthful” sweetener, but this fact has been the subject of criticism due to its very high fructose content. It is, however, a true vegan alternative to honey, and – because it dissolves quickly and is sweeter than pure sugar – it is useful in (you guessed it) cocktails!

One more note: If you plan on having a wee bit of tequila to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, why not step away from the sweet-and-sour-laced frozen Margarita and try a classy, classic Paloma! Click here for a recipe.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

Twenty Feet from Stardom: the Vinous Version

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In 2013, an American documentary film was released by the name of “Twenty Feet from Stardom.” Directed by Morgan Neville, the film is a behind-the-scenes look at backup singers. These talented folks are a big part of the sound—and the success—of many the biggest stars of the music world, and yet most of us will never even know their names.

This post is my vinous version of the concept, meant to be an homage to some of those obscure, unknown wines that occupy the same stage—in terms of time and place—as some of the blockbuster, world-famous wines of the world…and yet they remain just out of the spotlight.

Curtefranca DOC: The Curtefanca DOC shares the stage with the sparkling wines of the Franciacorta DOCG. Franciacorta is Italy’s serious, traditional method sparkling wine produced from Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir), Chardonnay, and Pinot Bianco grapes. Starting with the 2017 vintage, you can add the Erbamat grape variety (a white grape) to that list as well. The Franciacorta DOC was originally established allowing for a range of allowed wines, including a sparkling wine known as Pinot di Franciacorta, in 1967. In 1995 the Franciacorta DOCG “broke away” as a sparkling wine-only designation, and at the same time the Terre di Franciacorta DOC was created as a separate classification for non-sparkling wines. Both designations occupy the exact same geographic area.

The Terre di Franciacorta DOC changed its name to the Curtefranca DOC in 2008. The name was changed, not surprisingly, as it was determined that there was too much confusion between the sparkling wines of the Franciacorta PDO and the still wines of the Terre di Franciacorta PDO.

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Here are a few interesting factoids about the wines of the Curtefranca DOC:

  • The appellation allows for both red and white wines.
  • White wines are based on a minimum of 50% Chardonnay, with the remaining allowed to be Pinot Bianco or Pinot Nero (vinified as a white wine).
  • Red wines are blends, requiring a minimum of 25% Merlot, a minimum of 20% Cabernet Franc and/or Carmenère, and a minimum of 10% (up to a maximum of 35%) Cabernet Sauvignon. There’s a slush fund of sorts, allowing for (but not requiring) up to 15% “other aromatic red grapes” suitable for production in Lombardy.

The use of the name “Franzacurta” or “Franzia Curta” in the region can be traced back to 1277, appearing in the municipal statute of the commune of Brescia in reference to an area south of Lake Iseo. The name “Corte Franca” has been used for a commune in the area since 1928.

Collioure AOC: The Collioure AOC, perched high atop the cliffs of France’s Pyrénées-Orientales (Roussillon) region overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, occupies the same geographic area as the Banyuls AOC. The famous wines of the Banyuls AOC are fortified vin doux naturel with a minimum of 4.5% residual sugar. The most famous version of Banyuls are the red wines requiring a minimum of 50% Grenache Noir, but blanc, amber, and rosé versions are produced as well. There is even a separate Banyuls Grand Cru AOC for the highest-quality wines; Banyuls Grand Cru must be made from a minimum of 75% Grenache Noir and requires at least 30 months of barrel aging.

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The Collioure AOC is approved for the non-fortified wines (red, white, and rosé) of the area. Here is some information on the wines:

  • Collioure whites are generally produced using Grenache Blanc or Grenache Gris, but are allowed to be produced using a range of grapes including Macabeu (Macabeo), Marsanne, Roussanne, Vermentino, Carignan Blanc and Malvoisie du Roussillon, as well as 15% (allowed maximum) Muscat.
  • Reds and rosés must include at least two grape varieties, which may include Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Carignan, Cinsault, and Counoise. Rosé may also include a measure of Grenache Gris.
  • Collioure AOC wines must be dry, and have a maximum allowance of between 3 g/l and 4 g/l of residual sugar.

The Banyuls and Collioure AOCs are named after neighboring communes within the growing region.

There are more vineyards sitting twenty feet from stardom, including the Douro DOC (in the same place as the Porto DOC), the Coteaux Champenois AOC (sharing the stage with Champagne), and Moscadello di Montalcino (occupying the same space as Brunello di Montalcino). What are some of the others?

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

 

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a Vine

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One of the first things that a serious wine student will learn about Priorat is that it is one of the two DOCa regions in Spain, and that (its red version) is a hearty wine based around the Garnacha Tinta and Mazuelo (Carignan/Cariñena) grape varieties. Next, one might note the list of accessory varieties, which include some well-known international varieties (including Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Tempranillo) as well as a grape known as Garnacha Peluda.

There it is: Garnacha Peluda; otherwise known as Hairy Grenache. The name peluda seems to come from the French pelut and means furry.  How cute is that? The “hairy” part of the name refers to the small white hairs covering the underside of the leaf. Other terms used to describe this hirsutulous (botanical term for slightly hairy) characteristic include downy, wooly, fluffy, fleecy, and fuzzy. But they all mean the same thing: this leaf is hairy.

Garnacha Peluda, a mutation of Garnacha Tinta (aka Grenache Noir), is considered a unique variety and is often referred to as a downy-leafed variant of Grenache—which may make the inquiring mind wonder why a certain grapevine would mutate into such a form. The answer is that growing furry leaves is a biological adaptation. Biological adaptations are changes—structural (either morphological [able to be observed] or anatomical [internal]), physiological, or behavioral—that occur over many generations of plant or animal life in order to make the organism better suited to its environment and to improve its chances of survival.

Garnacha Pelut vineyards in Priorat

Garnacha Peluda vineyards in Priorat

The hairy-leafed variation of Grenache is a result of a morphological adaptation to hot, dry environments such as found in Priorat, as well as the Roussillon and Languedoc areas of southern France. (Note: in southern France, the grape is often called Lledoner [or Lladoner] Pelut.) The fuzzy layer protects the vine from water loss due to transpiration, helps shade the leaves, and reflects sunlight to help keep the plant cool. The hairy-leaf solution is one of several ways plants adapt to hot, dry environments. Others include small leaves, curled-up leaves, wax-coated leaves, woodsy stems, and green stems but no leaves.

Compared to its non-hairy cousin, Garnacha Peluda tends to produce wines that are lower in alcohol, lighter in color, and higher in acidity. The Garnacha Peluda grape is authorized for use in the following wines:

  • Recommended/Principle variety in: Terra Alta DO, Languedoc AOC (as Lledoner Pelut)
  • Accessory grape variety in: Empordà DO, Priorat DOCa, Terrasses du Larzac AOC (as Lledoner Pelut), Côtes du Roussillon and Côtes du Roussillon-Villages AOCs (also as Lledoner Pelut)

Vitis aestivalis varieties and native North American grapes native to the southwest, such as Mustang and Muscadine, are also likely to demonstrate the hairy-leafed adaptation. Many other plants have adopted this downy-leafed adaptation, including rosemary, sagebrush, oleander, buckthorn, magnolia or sycamore trees, potato, petunia, and lamb’s-ear.

Fuzzy-leafed lamb's ears

Fuzzy-leafed lamb’s ears

Another famous hairy-leafed vinifera grape is Pinot Meunier. As meunier means “miller” in French, the grape is so-named for the layer of white, downy hairs on the underside of the leaves, said to resemble grains of flour (as produced by the town miller at the local flour mill). But as we now know, it is all about that morphological plant adaptation.

References/for further information

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

The Outer Limits: Italy’s Southernmost DOCs

Map of Sicily via Google Maps

Map of Sicily via Google Maps

The island of Sicily, located just to the west of Calabria (the “tip” of Italy’s boot) might not be the southernmost point in Italy (that award goes to the island of Lampedusa), but it’s pretty far south, and it is home to the two southernmost DOCs of Italy (they overlap, and it’s a tie): the Eloro DOC and the Noto DOC.

First things first: about that “southernmost” claim: the southernmost town (commune) I could find (via Google maps) located within the Eloro DOC and Noto DOCs is Portopalo di Capo Passero (which is itself located within the Province of Syracuse). Its latitude is 36° 41′N. For the record, that’s just a little bit farther south than the DOC of Pantelleria, which is often quoted as Italy’s southernmost DOC, yet sits at 36° 50′.

The land around these two DOCs is mostly a flat, coastal plain so the area can become quite warm. Only the northernmost reaches of the Noto DOC has any hills to speak of, but the breezes off the Mediterranean Sea provide a necessary cooling influence.

The archeological site of Helorus (photo in the public domain)

The archeological site of Helorus

The Eloro DOC is named after Helorus (Italian: Eloro), an archeological site located in the modern-day commune of Noto. Helorus was an ancient Greek (then Roman) city dating from late 8th century BC. Helorus was mentioned by Thucydides in his recounting the retreat of the Athenians “on the road leading to Helorus from Syracuse.” The once-fortified city had a theater (called the colisseo) and many buildings. Today, parts of the city’s foundations, some portions of the outer walls, and a single column atop a square pedestal are still intact.

Red and rosé wines are produced under the Eloro DOC. Both styles are produced using a minimum of 90% Nero d’Avola, Frappato, and Pignatello grapes; the other 10% is allowed to include any red grape approved for Sicily. Red wines only are produced in the subzone of Pachino, and must be a minimum of 80% Nero d’Avola, with the other 20% being % Frappato and/or Pignatello. The emphasis on Nero d’Avola makes sense as likely native home of the grape–the commune of Avola–is just a few miles away. The Eloro DOC was established in 1994.

The town of Noto at sunset

The town of Noto at sunset

Noto DOC is a new name for the area formerly known as the Moscato di Noto DOC, and a good deal of Moscato-based wine is still produced here. However, under the new title, red wines are produced as well. Among the many styles of Moscato di Noto (all made with 100% Moscato Bianco) are a varietal Moscato, a spumante, a liquoroso (fortified), and a dried-grape version known as Passito di Noto. The Moscato di Noto spumante is required to have at least 5% residual sugar and a minimum of 4 atm of pressure. The liquoroso (fortified) must be fermented to at least 6.5% abv before fortification takes place.

The Noto DOC also produces a rosso made with a required minimum of 65% Nero d’Avloa, as well as a varietal Nero d’Avola (with the typical 85% minimum requirement).

The area around the town of Noto was destroyed in an earthquake in 1693, so the town that one may visit today dates to the early 18th century. Many of the churches, walkways and buildings were designed by the Sicilian architect Rosario Gagliardi (1698–1762) who worked in what is now known as the Sicilian Baroque style. Among the most amazing sites of the town are Corso Vittorio Emanuele, a street which includes the Church of San Domenico, and the Fountain of Hercules. Noto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Baroque Church of San Francesco in Noto

Baroque Church of San Francesco in Noto

As for the other extreme, it looks like the northernmost DOC in Italy is the Alto Adige DOC, which just barely nudges out the DOC of Valdadige – both are reaching up to 46° 40′N latitude. More on that later!

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

 

The pH of it all

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When we talk about wine, we talk about acidity, and when describing wines, one of the typical ways to describe acidity in wine is to use the pH scale. Dedicated students of wine can easily quote 2.9 to 3.9 as the typical range of pH in wine.

I personally love the zip and zest of highly acidic wines and adore Mosel Riesling (the drier the better), New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and even 100% Sicilian Grillo. I’ll take the tongue-curling antics of a wine with a pH of 2.9 any day.

But what exactly is pH? You probably already know that it is a scale runs from 0 to 14 and measures how acidic or basic a substance is. But what does that mean? To answer this question we need to dive into some science…we can start with chemistry and biology, and might just have to visit the physics department (and if we are going there, it better be worth it). So here we go!

About the p and the H: First things first—the term “pH” stands for “power of hydrogen.” The term was invented in 1909 by the Danish biochemist Søren Peter Lauritz Sørensen, so originally the “p” stood for potenz (the German word for power). The “H” (for us absolute beginners) is the element symbol for hydrogen, and the pH scale reflects the concentration and type of the hydrogen-based atoms in a solution. (Note: some references define the “p” in pH as “parts” or “potential.”)

What’s hydrogen got to do with it: Hydrogen is the common element to all acids. What determines whether a solution is acidic or basic is the form and degree of saturation of hydrogen ions.

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Define ions, please: To put it as simply as possible—ions are atoms or molecules that have lost or gained an electron over the course of their travels. In the case of hydrogen, this can occur when water splits apart.  If a hydrogen atom loses an electron, it becomes positively charged and is known as a hydrogen ion (H+). If a hydrogen atom gains an electron, it becomes negatively charged and is known as a hydroxide ion (OH).

Hydrogen ions: An acid is a molecule that can split apart in water and release hydrogen ions (thus, acidic solutions have measurable concentrations of hydrogen atoms). Bases are stronger in hydroxide ions. In neutral solutions, the two are roughly equal and they cancel each other out (neutralize each other).  The way that these hydrogen molecules react in water is the basis for the pH scale.

Deliver me from logarithms: The pH scale is logarithmic. Logarithms are multiples of ten; that means that for every full integer on the pH scale, the strength of the acid or base increases tenfold. Thus a pH of 2 is ten times more acidic than a pH of 3—and a pH of 2 is 100 times more acidic than a pH of 4. If this seems confusing, consider another logarithmic scale, the Richter Scale, where an earthquake measuring 7 is ten times stronger than a 6.

Liquid required: A substance has to be water-based in order to have a pH. Powders and oils (such as vegetable oil or olive oil) cannot be measured on the pH scale. There are, however, several other ways of measuring acidity.

The neutrality zone: A 7 on the pH scale is neither acidic nor basic, and considered neutral. Distilled water is generally neutral, but other types of water are not. An interesting (kind of gross) fact is that  human blood is very close to neutral (just slightly basic) and often has a pH of 7.35 to 7.45. Any deviation from this ideal blood pH can have devastating effects on one’s health.

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Just the basics: In the wine world we deal with levels of acidity, but it is interesting to understand the types of substances on the other end of the scale.  Here are a few common items and their basic pH levels:

  • 8: Baking soda, sea water
  • 9: Toothpaste
  • 10: Milk of Magnesia
  • 11: Ammonia
  • 12: Soapy water
  • 13: Oven cleaner
  • 14: Drain cleaner

The equation for pH: Never mind. If you are interested (and have a logarithmic calculator and know how to use it) click here.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor (who has not formally studied chemistry or physics since college) is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

(A Pound of) the Legendary Fernet-Branca Cure

Paging Doctor Fernet...

Paging Doctor Fernet…

Usually, an ounce of prevention is best. However, at this time of year, perhaps we should just go straight for the cure. For many people, a shot of Fernet-Branca is a lengendary cure—for a long night of drinking, or whatever ails you. While its flavor  has been variously described as “a smack in the face with a eucalyptus branch1” and “a cross between medicine, crushed plants, and bitter mud2,” these are terms of endearment and the taste (once it has been acquired) is crave-worthy.

The legends of Fernet-Branca take many forms, including history, cocktails, secret ingredients, and curative properties. Read on for a few of the legends of Fernet-Branca!

Paging Doctor Branca: Fernet-Branca was invented in Milan in 1845 by Bernadino Branca, a self-taught herbalist. The name “Fernet” comes from one Doctor Fernet—a fictional Swede with whom Branca originally shared credit for the drink, presumably to add authority to his claims of the drink’s health benefits. According to the story, the “renowned liquor” had helped Dr. Fernet and several members of his family to live for over one hundred years.

A Corner on the Saffron Market: Fernet-Branca has been produced using its original recipe since its inception. The exact formula is a trade secret, but is known to contain cinchona bark, bitter orange, aloe, chamomile, myrrh, cardamom, gentian, peppermint, anise, and bay leaves. It is rumored that saffron is also a key ingredient, so much so that the makers of Fernet-Branca have a (rumored) corner on a large percentage of the world’s saffron market.

Tastes like (Poison) Iodine: In 1960, the legendary Broadway actress Betsey Von Furstenberg played a joke on Tony Randall, and “spiked” his on-stage drink with Fernet-Branca. Upon tasting it, Tony believed that he had just swallowed iodine and thought he was being poisoned. Laughing no longer, Ms. Von Furstenberg was suspended from the Actor’s Equity Union for 60 days for her role in the prank.

A New Year’s Toast with Fernet:  The drink’s numerous medicinal claims—which included being prescribed for fever, cholera, intestinal parasites, colds, and menstrual cramps—came in handy in San Francisco during American Prohibition where it was still legal for sale in pharmacies, as a medicine. This was the beginning of the City’s love affair with Fernet, where it has become such a cult favorite that in some bars and restaurants, a midnight toast of Fernet-Branca is raised just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, in lieu of Champagne.

Hanky-Panky: A Fernet-based cocktail known as the Hanky-Panky was invented by in 1903 at the Savoy Hotel in London. One of the bar’s regular customers was an Edwardian Actor named Charles Hawtrey. One night after a performance, Hawtrey came into the bar and asked for something “with a bit of a punch.” The bartender, Ada “Coley” Coleman, created a variation on a martini using gin, sweet vermouth, and a dash of Fernet-Branca. When Hawtrey tasted it, he acclaimed, “By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky!”

1http://www.littledenblog.com/blog/classic-cocktails-the-negroni

2http://www.romefile.com/food-and-drink/fernet-branca.php

References/for further learning:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net