The Good, The Bad, and the Diffuse

Structure

Structure

Last summer when I was putting together my “Palate Tune-Up” session for the SWE Conference in Seattle, I spent a great deal of time researching, thinking about, and (yuck) experiencing wine faults. After all, the main premise of the session was to learn to recognize faults – sulfur dioxide, TCA, excessive Brett and other such imbalances – in wine.

It soon occurred to me, however, that giving such a session based on the ick-factor might be something akin to career suicide. Why would people choose to attend the ick-factor session, when Cru Artisan Bordeaux was being poured right next door?

With that in mind, I decided to start the course off by pouring three spectacular wines – each chosen to represent a specific aspect of what we expect in an excellent wine – before we tested the faulty wines. So, my next challenge was to define – and then demonstrate – what makes a wine “excellent.”

As every wine lover knows, defining what makes a wine “excellent” is a challenging – and very subjective – proposal. Every time I came up with a succinct definition, I could hear the arguments and rebuttals from my future audience.

Balance

Balance

Thus, it was several weeks before I came up with my examples. I would choose a wine to represent the following three aspects of an excellent wine: Complexity, Balance, and Structure. Complexity and balance were relatively easy to define, demonstrate, and provide with near-perfect examples.

Structure, on the other hand, eluded me. I thought I knew what it meant, and I could definitely recognize both its presence and absence in a wine, but it was difficult to put into words without talking around and through the matter for less than ten minutes.

So…of course I went on a research bender. What did the wine experts among us have to say about structure?  The New Wine Lover’s Companion had a pretty good definition, basically stating that structure referred to a wine’s “architecture – its plan – including the building blocks of acid, alcohol, fruit, glycerol, and tannins.”  It went on to say that the term “structure” is meaningless without an adjective in front of it, such as “well structured” or “strong structure.”

The Wine Spectator’s online glossary also had a decent enough definition – saying it was related to “mouthfeel.”  Many other references used the rather clichéd “its like milk versus cream” line of reasoning or provided a multitude of synonyms for body – texture, backbone, weight – or provided adjectives to describe it – mouth-filling, brawny, rich, lean, gritty, velvety, smooth.

Complexity

Complexity

But I still wanted to know just what it was…the technical-sorta definition as to what provides a wine with good structure.  Professor Emile Peynaud came as close as anyone could possibly, it seemed, to delivering what I wanted to know with his definition of “structure” as “impressions of volume, form, and consistency.” In other words, structure is the taster’s sense of the wine’s physical make-up.

But it still seemed that I would need to write my own definition to convey just exactly what I meant to say. So I came up with the following: I would explain what is meant by a wine’s structure beginning with the interplay of the same set of attributes that contribute to balance in flavor. In my definition, therefore, a wine’s structure is composed of the sensory impact of acid, sugar, fruit, tannin, extract, and alcohol – but instead of noticing how these components impact flavor, we draw our attention to how they work together to create the tactile sensation of the wine.

So much for the definition! Now, I needed to define and demonstrate how a lack of structure would be described in a wine. Defining the opposite of balance was easy: unbalanced. Defining the opposite of complexity was very easy: monotony. But the only “textbook” opposite of “structure” I could find was “unstructured.” That just didn’t seem right.

Diffuse

Diffuse

So I went on another month-long research bender to find the perfect word that meant “unstructured.” I could find many ways to discuss wines with inadequate or unbalanced structure. For instance, the term “hollow” is also used to denote lack of structure; hollow wines are diluted and lack depth. A “brawny” or “rustic” wine may be described as a hefty wine with plenty of weight, flavor, and grit; but lacking in the complexity needed to bring the elements together in a refined way. And everyone’s favorite – “flabby” to describe a wine lacking in acid, or missing its “backbone.”

But there was no real “winespeak” term to define lack of balance, texturally speaking. So I found an excellent word to portray what I meant – diffuse. The term diffuse is used to describe a building or structure with no strength, or something that is scattered, spread out, or dispersed.  Remembering that “structure” refers to the elements of texture and their relationship, I think it describes a wine lacking in the regard quite well.

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

 

 

Long Time Gonna Study This!

LTGSTLong time gonna study this!

No…this is not the Bubbly Professor slipping up and using poor grammar…rather, it is shorthand for the method I’ve been using for the past several decades to introduce and teach about (region by region) the wide world of wine!

Long Time Gonna Study This is a mnemonic device to help me remember the 5 most important things one needs to know about any wine region – in order to really understand (and not just “memorize”) the facts and figures, grapes and places, and other details about the area. The letters stand for: Location, Terroir, Grapes, Styles, and Terminology.

This is not the “easy way out” for studying. This is, however, a very effective study technique as it gives meaning and context to what you are studying. As I’ve said so many times before…your brain just does not like (and is not good at) fixing random words and numbers into long-term memory. What your brain is really good at remembering are things that are personal, contextual, spatial, surprising, physical, and humorous in nature.

So…how do we use this knowledge to make our wine studies more effective? We make our studies more contextual (the background story), spatial (how this location relates to other locations), physical (taste the wine, look at the label, pick up the bottle even if you can’t afford to buy it), personal (draw a map, say the words out loud, visit the region). If it can be made to be surprising or humorous along the way, so much the better!

Here is a more detailed explanation of the use of the LTGST study method:

LTGST terroir 2Location:

  • For starters, we need to know the basics: where is this area located?
  • Get specific – latitude, proximity to well-known cities and landmarks, and location in relation to other wine regions.
  • Research the topography – rivers, lakes, oceans, mountain ranges.
  • The best way to do this is trace a map, get to googling and draw in the cities, mountains, and rivers. By doing so you are making your studies more physical, which as we know will greatly improve your memory of the topic.
  • It’s important to study this first, as it sets the stage for the information to follow.

Terroir:

  • What is the local climate, soil, topography, etc and how does it affect the wine?
  • Knowing the details on the location (latitude, near-by mountains, rivers, and oceans) will translate into a better understanding of the terroir (see how that works)?

Grapes:

  • What grapes are grown there?
  • Are they blends, or single varietals?
  • Understanding the location, which leads to a better contextualization of the terroir, will lead to better understanding of what grapes grown in a certain location and why. There’s a good reason that Alsace grows mainly white grapes and Bordeaux can grow botrytis-affected Semillon so well – and it has everything to do with location and terroir!

LTGST terminologyStyles:

  • After we know the overall climate and the grape varieties that are grown in a certain region, we’re ready to study the types of wines made in a region.
  • What styles of wine do they produce? Dry, sweet, still, sparkling?
  • What unique production techniques create these wines?

Terminology:

  • What terms do you need to understand the wines and their labels?
  • Some regions, such as Bordeaux and Burgundy, have a vocabulary all of their own and this list can get very long indeed; others are much simpler.

So there you have it…the LTGST method of studying the wines of the world. Like I said earlier in this post, it is certainly not quick or easy, but I guarantee you it’s effective.

Good luck with your studies, and please let me know if you have any questions, comments, or success with this method!

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

Just in case you were wondering…

Nervous at computerHi Everyone!!

Just in case your were wondering…well, about just about anything having to do with wine education, education in general, or maybe even wine in general..

Yours truly, The Bubbly Professor, will be hosting an “Ask Me Anything” panel over at Reddit starting later today and going “live” – Sunday, February 23 – at 12 Noon to 2:00 pm Central Time.

So go ahead…make my day and ask me anything.

Can you tell how nervous I am?

How to Study for the CSW (Or any other Exam)

Wine 2In the past few weeks, I have received dozens of emails from people asking “How do I study for the CSW?”  It’s a good question, and one that I thought I’d address here on the blog as it seems so universal.  By the way, most of the inquiries I get have to do with the CSW, but having been a professor for decades, I know that these study techniques will work for any knowledge-based set of material…even other wine certifications!

I think the problem stems from people confusing “reading” with “studying.”  Reading is a good first step, but it’s only the beginning.  Studying is so much more….so here’s my advice on how to “really study.”  By the way, if you are looking for the easy way out, you are NOT going to like me!

My Advice…How to Study for the Certified Specialist of Wine (or any other) Exam

Learning, unfortunately, takes time. Unless you have a have photographic memory, learning requires repetition, active study techniques, and concentration.  Here are few simple tips to help you get the most from your study time.

Read and Take Notes:  Reading alone does not do much in terms of long-term learning for most people. Do you remember that little jingle about “people only remember 10% of what they read?” It’s actually less than that. If you want your study session to result in long-term memory, you need to take notes while you study. Read your study guide section by section, taking notes all the while. Then, clean up those notes and use them as your study material for the last few months or weeks leading up to your exam.

How to study 1Study Actively:  One of the reasons that taking notes is so effective for most people is that writing involves more energy and more of the senses than just reading or listening. The more energy and senses that are involved in studying (or any activity); the more new material will make it to your brain’s “recording disk.” While it might feel silly, reading out loud or reviewing your notes out loud is one of the best ways involve more of your senses in your studying.  Writing, a kinetic activity, also increases memory.  Instead of staring at maps, draw them. Instead of just reading over your notes, copy them over.

Don’t just Memorize – Strive for Understanding: There are two ways to memorize:  by rote (mechanically) and by understanding. Telephone numbers and computer passwords are better learned by rote.  However, anything that needs to be understood must have some meaning behind it. The more association you can elicit for an idea, the more meaning it will have; the more meaningful the learning, the better one is able to retain it. This is the main reason why travelling is such a good way to learn wine…once you’ve driven from Greve to Montalcino, its easy to remember the distances and directions…you totally understand it (and will never forget it, most likely, if you tried to drive yourself)! While you might not be able to travel to every wine region you are studying, you can try to find the context behind the facts.  You can do this by comparing and contrasting, noting similarities in ideas and concepts, tying new ideas to something you already know, and trying to put new information in its proper place in a larger system of ideas, concepts and theories.

Rephrase and explain:  Anyone who has ever taught a wine class knows that one way to really learn something is to teach it.  Teaching requires us to organize and explain material, which just happen to be two of the most important facets of learning. To use this concept in your study sessions, experiment with stopping every five minutes to try and rephrase and explain the material.  This is also a great way to stop your mind from wandering. Remember, if you can’t explain something quickly and succinctly, you don’t really know it well.

how to learn slideUse Spaced Repetition:  Memories fade away rapidly when not reviewed or used. The curve of forgetting is like a playground slide; we forget most of what we learned within the first 24 hours after studying, from there the curve of forgetting proceeds much more slowly.  To combat the “24-hour brain dump,” try to fit in a study session every day, even if it is just ten minutes (although an hour a day is better). The more times around the learning circuit, the longer lasting the impression will be.

Simulate the Required Behavior: When studying for an examination, the most effective approach is to closely simulate the behavior you’ll ultimately be required to perform. What this means is that one way to effectively study for a multiple choice test is to take multiple choice practice tests.  However…what’s even more effective is writing your own test questions. Writing test questions after studying a section of material is also a great way to keep from getting bored or losing your concentration.

I hope these these study techniques – even if you only use one or two, will help you in your studies.  If you have any questions or comments, let me know!!  Good luck with your studies!!

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

The Pisco Wars

I’ve spent the better part of the last month researching the iconic South American brandy known as Pisco. Unfortunately, most of my work has revolved around books and the internet instead of a shot glass.  Suffice it to say, there is a lot of conflicting information and historical turf wars going on surrounding Pisco. But, I’ve discovered the official government websites and culled information from dozens of producers, so here is my article on Pisco!!

Pisco SourPisco has been produced in South America since at least as early as the 1700s, and is thought to have originated with Spanish settlers who brought their technology and traditions of wine production to the New World.

Brandy is widely produced in South America, although Chile and Peru are the only two countries permitted to use the term “Pisco.”  As of May 16, 2013, the TTB (Trade and Tax Bureau) of the United States recognized “Pisco Perú” as a distinctive product of Peru, and “Pisco Chileno” as a distinctive product of Chile.

The birthplace of Pisco, the origin of the name “Pisco,” and even the right to use the term as the name of a beverage is a subject that has long been, and continues to be, hotly debated between Peru and Chile.

While the debate rages on, one thing both countries seem to agree on is that an excellent way to drink Pisco is in the popular cocktail known as the Pisco Sour. The Pisco Sour is considered the “national drink” of both Chile and Peru, and each country even has a national holiday with which to celebrate it. However, both countries claim to be the birthplace of the cocktail, and, like Pisco itself, both have their own version. The Peruvian Pisco Sour is made by mixing Peruvian Pisco with lime juice, simple syrup, and egg white, shaken and served over ice, and garnished with a dash of Angostura bitters.  The Chilean version is made with Chilean Pisco, the juice of Pica Limes (similar to a Key Lime or Mexican Lime), and sugar, shaken and served over with ice.

Pisco MasChilean Pisco:  Chilean Pisco is produced in the Atacama and Coquimbo regions, two official D.O. (Denomination of Origin) wine-producing regions established in 1931.  The Elqui Valley subregion of Coquimbo has emerged as the premier Pisco zone.  The government-based Pisco Chile trade group was formed in 2009 and has set new standards for Chilean Pisco.

The main grapes used for making Chilean Pisco include Pink Muscat, Muscat of Alexandria, Pedro Jiménez, and Torontél.  While Chilean Pisco is traditionally a pomace brandy, some versions are produced using wine. Chilean Pisco is generally double-distilled via pot stills to a maximum strength of 73% alcohol by volume. All Chilean Pisco must rest for a minimum of 60 days before bottling, however, unlike Peruvian Pisco, Chilean Pisco is sometimes aged in wood.

Chilean Pisco is sometimes diluted with water, or cut with neutral spirits to alter the final alcohol content by volume. The products are categorized, based on its minimum alcohol strength by volume, as Pisco Corriente or Tradicional (30%), Pisco Especial (35%), Pisco Reservado (40%), or Gran Pisco (43%).  The minimum alcohol by volume is 40% for those products exported to the United States.

Chilean Pisco, including some of those exported to the United States, is often labeled with the term “Transparent Pisco.” These products are aged for required sixty days, generally in glass, stainless steel, ceramic, or inactive wood. The following styles of wood-aged Pisco are also produced in Chile:

  • Pisco de Guarda: Aged in active French or American oak for a minimum of 180 days.
  • Pisco Envejecido (Aged Pisco):  Aged in active French or American oak for one year, though most producers age for two or more.

Pisco PeruPeruvian Pisco:  According to the Denominación de Origen, Pisco may be produced in the Peruvian departments of Lima, Ica, Arequipa, and Moquegua, as well as the valleys of Locumba, Sama, and Caplina in the Department of Tacna. There are eight grape varieties authorized for use, categorized as “aromatic” and “non-aromatic.” The aromatic varieties are  Italia, Moscatel, Albilla and Torontél; and the non-aromatic varieties include Quebranta, Negra Criolla, and Mollar.

Peruvian Pisco is produced via pot still distillation. Peruvian Pisco is unique in that it must be bottled at the same level of alcohol as when it was produced: additives of any kind – including water and neutral spirits – are prohibited, so the distillation must be precise. Per the regulations of the governing body, the Comisión Nacional del Pisco of Perú, the alcohol percentage must be between 38 and 48 percent.

Peruvian Pisco is not aged in wood, but is required to be aged for a minimum of three months in vessels made of copper, glass, stainless steel, clay, or other inert material. There are three official styles of Peruvian Piscos:

  • Pisco Puro (“Pure” Pisco): A Pisco made from a single grape variety.
  • Pisco Acholado (“Blended Pisco): A Pisco produced with more than one grape variety, generally referring to a blend of aromatic and non-aromatic varieties, or product made with several different types of Pisco blended together.
  • Pisco Mosto Verde (“Green Must Pisco”): Produced via the distillation of partially fermented grape musts before the fermentation is complete.

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

RIP Charlie Trotter

charlie-trotter_cookingRest in peace, Chef Trotter.

Having a dinner (complete with wine pairings) at Charlie Trotter’s place in Chicago was one of my earliest adventures in fine dining.  It must have been 15 years ago…I lucked into a short business trip to Chicago and by some miracle was able to get a late-night reservation for 2 at Trotter’s.

I didn’t know anyone in Chicago (or on the trip with me) so one of my best friends drove over 300 miles just to have that dinner with me (he drove home that same night, while I headed to the airport).  You know who you are…and thanks! True to Chef Trotter’s form, it was an amazing dinner (well worth the money) and was followed up by a tour of the kitchen, a chance to meet the Chef and his staff, and a walk through the wine cellar! I am not sure, but it seemed to me at the time that all customers were given the same end-of-meal treatment.  True hospitality.

By the way, for years, I played the full half-hour-long video version of Charlie Trotter’s Keynote address to the 2008 Conference of the American Culinary Federation for my LCB Supervision Class.  Just try to listen to that speech without being inspired (and ending up crying.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20e4RYNwKR4&feature=player_embedded

He also taught me the right way to pronounce “brigade.”

Thanks for the inspiration, Charlie Trotter…

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test*

A lot of the students in my introductory wine classes have a hard time coming to terms with acidity in wine.  It’s like the word “acidity” reminds them of battery acid, stomach acid, or Jerry Garcia’s long strange trip.

LemonsWhile its easy to understand how acidity does not sound appealing, its a very important flavor component in wine; perhaps even the most important. I can usually bring the class over to “my way of thinking” by comparing acidity in wine to acidity in food.  Everyone understands that a boring burger can benefit from a few slices of pickle or tomato, both of which add a wallop of acid.  Even the ketchup on that burger is highly acidic, although our tongues are much too interested in its sweetness to notice the zing.

Chemically speaking, acid is present in minute quantities in wine; it generally makes up only about 0.5% to 0.7% of the overall volume of a wine. However, its presence is one of the main flavor differences between fine wine and unfermented grape juice.  Acidity gives a wine “liveliness” or “bite”.  Without sufficient acidity, a wine would taste flat, neutral, boring, and bland. Who needs that? 

When leading my students through their very first tasting, I have them direct their attention to the sides of their tongues where (despite the frequent bashings of the puedo-science of the “tongue map”) we have a unique set almost gill-like taste buds that are highly sensitive to acidity. 

Directing them to pay attention to the “level of zing” and not any associated aromas or flavors, we try to agree on one of the following descriptors to apply to the level of acidity in our wine:

Cream of Tomato soupFlat:  If the wine has no noticable “zing,” we call it flat.  I tell the students to compare the level of zing in the wine to the taste of butter.  Of course, butter has almost no acid; it tastes flat. That’s the point. Also, I would never serve my students a flat wine, but at this point in the class they don’t know that yet! A wine that is flat lacks acidity has no depth or complexity.  A “flat” wine is missing one of the basic building blocks of flavor.

Soft: I ask my students if the wine has just a touch of acidity…like cream of tomato soup or blackberries. A soft wine has low acidity compared to many wines, but is still well-balanced, mellow, fruity, and pleasant.  A wine with soft acidity is generally easy to drink.  You may sense just a touch of acidity, and have a slight physiological reaction to a soft wine. (Fyi, both cream of tomato soup and blackberries clock in at about 3.9 pH….just about where the softest wines should land.)

Fresh or Refreshing:   A fresh, or refreshing, wine has enough acidity to balance the fruitiness and make the wine interesting and your mouth feel clean.  The main impression a fresh or refreshing wine leaves on your palate is one of refreshing the palate.  The term is used for a pleasant white wine that is perhaps not too complex – think Moscato d’Asti, Australian Viognier or warm-weather Chardonnay.  This term is also well-used for many red wines such as ripe Zinfandel or Mendoza Malbec, although beginning tasters generally don’t understand the difference between acidity and bitterness.  That’s a lesson for another day.

green applesCrisp:  Imagine biting into a ripe green apple.  The sides of your mouth pucker up, and yet it tastes great…good flavor accompanied by balanced acidity and fruit.  But maybe a bit too tart for those who would prefer a red apple or a nectarine.  A crisp wine’s acidity is easily recognizable but does not overwhelm the flavor of the wine.  You will feel a slight prickly sensation on the sides of your tongue.  You can taste the acidity, but the other flavors come shining through as well. Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, Chablis, White Bordeaux, many Italian White Wines, and other warm-weather white wines have a good chance of being well-described as “crisp.”

 Lively:  Think of the vibrant acidity accompanied by a whoosh of flavor that you experience from a green apple Jolly Rancher candy. A lively wine that has a perfect balance of acidity, and is bursting with flavor.  This term is used for wines that have fuller flavor than wines described as “crisp,” such as many sparkling wines (the bubbles emphasize the acidity), California Sauvignon Blanc, or any other white wine that has avoided malo-lactic fermentation or was the result of a cool climate or year. 

grapefruitTart:  Four words:  New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.  One more word:  grapefruit. A tart wine is noticeably acidic.  If you are a ceviche-loving type of person who would rather have a dill pickle than a cookie for a snack, this might be your favorite type of wine. (It is mine, but then my mother once had to explain to me that peeled lemons were not an appropriate snack.) This is a high-acid wine that leaves sharp, almost hard impression on your tongue.  This wine will cause a physiological reaction in your salivary glands, but is not overwhelmingly acidic and not yet sour.

Sour:  If the wine reminds you just a bit too much of biting down on a freshly sliced lemon (or, worse yet, lime wedge), you have a wine that is out of balance with too much harsh acidity.  This is generally a negative term a might represent a defect in the wine (as would a “flat” wine).  A sour wine will remind you more of vinegar and may imply that the wine has spoiled. If you were served this wine in a restaurant, return it.  If you were served this wine at someone’s house, you might just have to sit there and cry.

Other terms I have used to describe acidity include:  sharp, vibrant, snappy, snap-crackle-pop, electric, intense, bright, precise, daggar-like, zing, tongue-curling, acidic spark, or a flavor such as “cherry-like acidity” or “a squirt of lemon”. Or my personal favorite…scandalous.

What’s your favorite?

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

 *Kudos to any readers who caught the reference to Tom Wolfe’s famous book about Ken Kesey, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” If you got the reference, you are probably my age (congrats on making it past your 40’s).  If you didn’t, you might recognize the brillant, white-suit wearing Mr. Wolfe as the author of “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “The Right Stuff.”