In my Mind I’m Going to Porto Santo

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Porto Santo is a Portuguese island located in the Atlantic Ocean, 27 miles (43 km) northeast of the island of Madeira. It forms the Madeira Archipelago along with the island of Madeira and a small string of islands known as las Ilhas Desertas (literally “the Deserted Islands”).  Porto Santo is a small island, measuring 9 miles (14 km) long and just 5 miles (7.7 km) across.

The earliest record of the history of Porto Santa dates from 1418, when a group of Portuguese ships were (accidently) blown into its sheltered harbor. The ships were in the service of Infante Henrique of Portugal, and had been blown off-course by an intense storm. They named the island Porto Santo (“Holy Harbor”), as their arrival in a sheltered bay during the storm was seen as the result of divine intervention. .

The Ilhéu de Baixo along the unpopulated northern coast

Geologically, the island is divided into two parts—the mountainous northeast, and a relatively flat coastal plain in the southwest, which includes a 4.5 mile-long (7 km) golden sand beach. Laid-back tourism is one of the main industries, and visitors can enjoy hiking, biking, motorbiking, off-roading, windmills, forts, or golf; and may choose to take a two-hour boat ride to Madeira aboard the ferry Lobo Marinh. Waterfront wining and dining may be found in Vila Baleira, the one and only “city” on the island.

History buffs can pay a visit to the Christopher Columbus House Museum and learn that Christopher Colombus was once married to a Portuguese woman and that they lived on Porto Santo for a period of time. Colombus’ wife, Filipa Moniz, unfortunately passed away during childbirth just a few years after their marriage.

Topographical map of the Madeira Archipelago by Bourrichon via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1420s, the Portuguese King sent a group under the command of Captain Bartolomeu Perestrelo to colonize the island. The group planted grapevines and sugar cane, and introduced rabbits to the island. The introduction of rabbits turned out to be not such a good idea, as they rampaged their way across the island and soon dominated the local environment. In a matter of a few (rabbit) generations, they basically ate everything else up.

Another not-so-smart move by these early settlers involved the local Dragon Trees. The valuable sap of the trees, known as “dragon’s blood” is a type of resin used for medicine and dyes. The colony chopped down the trees and literally bled the trees dry to the point that they became extinct on the island. As such, the island lost its original wind protection—and with the help of the ravaging wild rabbits—the area was left rather rugged, wind-blown, and barren. While it certainly has  its own style of natural beauty, the island has never recovered to its original lush state.

Despite the challenges, there is some viticulture on the island of Porto Santo. As Porto Santo is included in the geographic territory of the Madeira DOC, the Madeirense DOC and the VR Terras Madeirenses, these wines may be produced on the island of Porto Santo. Despite the limitations, grapes are a pretty big deal here—agriculture is limited on the island, making grapes, melons, and rabbit the three biggest commodities.

Grapes or wine from Porto Santo may also be sent to the island of Madeira for use in the wines bottled there. There are some obvious logistical challenges to such a project, however—it has been known to happen. For instance, the Madeira Vintners used Listrão and Caraco grapes from Porto Santo in their 2013 vintage. That same year, Porto Santo grower J. Santos produced a sweet white wine from locally grown Listrão as well as an off-dry white wine from the Porto Santo-grown Caracol grapes. You can read reviews of both of these wines on Niklas Jörgensen’s Mad about Madiera blog.

References/for further information:

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

All Out for Inulin!

Agave tequilana weber

Tequila owes its soul to inulin.

As such, perhaps many of us also owe our souls—and our marriages, friendships, and just-barely-made-it-out-of-college-alive stories to inulin as well.

Inulin is the substance present in agave sap that, after a bit of finagling, is fermented into alcohol and distilled into tequila. However, just like the starch found in barley, wheat, and rice—inulin has to be broken down into fermentable sugars before the magic of fermentation begins. This process is known as saccharification, which is just a fancy way to saying “breaking a complex carbohydrate down into its component sugars.”

Inulin is a type of complex carbohydrate known as a polysaccharide—meaning that it is a large, chain-like, sugar-based molecule. Starch, the well-known polysaccharide abundant in wheat, barley, and rice (as well as the foods produced from them) is a polysaccharide consisting of a many short chains of glucose molecules held together by molecular bonds. Grains (and other starchy foods such as potatoes) are typically soaked, ground, heated, and/or allowed to sprout in order to activate the enzymes that will split apart the molecular bonds and free the glucose molecules for fermentation. In humans, most people digest starch well—digestion breaks apart the molecular bonds and releases the glucose to be used as energy (if we get off the couch).

Common Chicory (cichorium intybus)

Inulin is a polysaccharide consisting of many short chains of fructose molecules held together by a unique type of molecular bond and bounded on each end by a glucose molecule. Inulin is used as a form of carbohydrate storage in plants that do not store or create starch. In plants, inulin is found mainly in the roots and underground stems (rhizomes). In humans, due to the nature of its molecular bonds, inulin is largely indigestible and is considered a type of soluble (water absorbing) dietary fiber.

In addition to agave, inulin is found in over 36,000 species of plants, including asparagus, artichokes, onions, bananas, and chicory. Inulin was first observed in 1804 by a German scientist named Valentin Rose. He noticed a “peculiar substance” in the roots and stems of the horse-heal herb—a relative of the sunflower plant that goes by the latin name of Inula heleniu.  After the substance was isolated, he named it “inulin” after the name Inula.

Inulin-rich agave hearts

In that wonderful circle-of-life process we know as tequila production, the heart of the blue agave plant is split open and slowly heated to release the sap.  But as we liquor store archaeologists know, what is really happening is that inside a long-chain polysaccharide known as inulin, the molecular bonds are slowly loosening their grip on the sugar molecules they once held so tight, soon to release a flood of fructose (and a little bit of glucose) into the world as simple, fermentable sugars ready to be transformed into tequila.

P.S. We do not advise anyone to rush to the grocery store and try to make liquor out of inulin-rich asparagus. But if you do, please let us know about it in the comments section (above).

References/for more information:

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

 

 

 

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