Berger: There’s important info on those wine labels
Fine wine is a romantic beverage that, like cheese, comes from a mundane liquid (grape juice for wine, milk for cheese) and is transformed by fermentation into a sublime, hand-tended product that actually ages and improves, then fades and deteriorates.
Sure, some (usually low-priced) wines are less romantic than that. Some are almost literally manufactured with the use of giant harvesting and manipulating machines, and automation techniques that would be right at home in a multinational food giant that homogenizes flavors by computer analysis.
One aspect of all wine that almost never rears its head in public is that they all may be analyzed for their chemical constituents. Winemakers do it all the time to determine exactly what’s in each wine.
All wines contain acid levels between about 4 grams per liter and 8 grams per liter — and the more acid, the tarter the wine will be. Also related to this is the pH of the wine — the higher it is, the softer and sweeter the wine will seem.
You would think that wineries would like to inform their customers of some of each wine’s technical details, since knowing the basic facts of a wine would help buyers make the right purchasing decisions.
However, almost no wineries ever tell consumers much about their wines — most for fear they will remove some of the romance and mystique. Which is very sad, when you think about it.
I have often been asked why a wine that a consumer bought was so unlike what he or she expected. One e-mailer not long ago said she had gotten a chardonnay that tasted sweet, and had no idea the wine would be like that.
Many riesling producers now use the International Riesling Foundation’s (IRF) sweetness scale on their back labels, one that I created for the IRF a few years ago.
It is supported by technical guidelines, which are on the IRF web site (www.DrinkRiesling.com), but simply calls for wineries to put an arrow on the scale pointing to whether the wine is dry or indicate its perceived sweetness level.
Moreover, fine wine is a product of its vineyard (the source of fruit) as well as the clonal material grown in that vineyard and what sort of rootstock was chosen for the vines.
Esoteric details? Sure, for most people, who basically fear all roots when they are connected to canals and dentists. But some wine geeks love this sort of talk, as if a wine with a pH of 3.2 is somehow a better wine than one that is made from similar grapes and regions, but has a pH of 3.8.
In the early 1980s, the now-defunct Hacienda Winery’s winemaker Steve MacRostie put acid and pH facts on the back labels of his Cabernets. I called him in 1985 to ask why and he simply said it was simple:
“People who don’t care about that stuff can ignore it, but some people know what the statistics mean, and that helps them understand the wine.”
Very few wineries put such details on their labels, so I was stunned to see Dry Creek Vineyards do this a few weeks back with a handful of its wines.
Much of the statistical data on the label of the winery’s superb 2014 Fumé Blanc means little to me, such as that the winery used four different rootstocks and four different clones of sauvignon blanc to make the wine.
What was important was to see that the wine’s alcohol was modest (13.5%) and that its acidity was on the higher side (7.3 grams per liter). And that the wine was fermented exclusively in stainless steel tanks at a cold temperature (no higher than 60 degrees).
All this told me the wine would be a) dry, b) unoaked, and c) crisp enough to work well with oysters.
And it is. The winery has crafted here a great and characterful sauvignon blanc that is distinctly more interesting than its 2014 sauvignon blanc, which curiously sells for more money ($18).
Wine of the Week: 2014 Dry Creek Vineyards Fumé Blanc, Dry Creek Valley ($14) -- A less widely available wine than the SB, this stylish white wine follows a long Dry Creek tradition of making nicely honed, varietal Sauvignons. Here the fruit is slightly more olive-y and herbal scented, and will be better in a year or two.
Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.