Wine, Demystified

I want to share a conversation I’ve just had with Marco DiGiulio, winemaker at Girard Napa Valley and the man behind Artistry, a red wine blend I’ve been enjoying all week. (I’ll write next time about the meal that brought Artistry alive for me: a lamb stew with dried apricots, from the Chez Panisse Fruit cookbook.)

The conversation with DiGiulio happened because, like a lot of wine writers, I’ve been including basic winemaking facts along with my tasting notes: the blend of varietals, the wood used for aging, and so forth. You can find this data on almost every wine product sheet these days, or with a quick Internet search. But what does it really mean? How many of us can actually scan pH and total acidity numbers and glean something about what’s in the bottle? Learning about DiGiulio and his interest in the relationship between acidity and food friendliness, I decided to give him a call and get him to walk me through the data on the Artistry product sheet. Just for reference, here’s the data:

Varietal Composition: 63 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 13 percent Petit Verdot, 12 percent Malbec, 9 percent Merlot, 3 percent Cabernet Franc
Fermentation: Native yeasts, malolactic in barrel
Barrel Aging: 22 months in French oak
Filtration: Unfined, unfiltered
Production: 3,942 cases
Alcohol: 14.3 percent
TA: 0.58g/100ml
PH: 3.71
Release Date: September 2007
Suggested Retail Price: $40

Of course, our conversation happened in the usual looping manner of normal human speech, but I’ll reproduce it here in a way that reflects the data listed above. Also, one caveat on DiGiulio’s behalf: He was very careful to reiterate, again and again, that he was speaking in very broad generalities, in the interest of simplicity. I just outlined his remarks in the interest of brevity, so if any of this sounds overgeneralized, do not blame DiGiulio. Blame me.

DD: So what’s up with the blend? Are you emulating any particular Bordeaux-style blend?

Marco DiGiulio: No, we’re just trying to make wine in a consistent style. Vintages change, so blending, instead of just making a Cabernet, gives us the freedom to make a wine a little more consistently.

DD: OK, let’s go through the varietals other than Cabernet.

DiGiulio: Petit Verdot is for color and tannic structure. Malbec adds a fleshy ripe-fruit character. Merlot mellows the rough edges. Cabernet Franc gives aromatics.

DD: Fermentation—native yeast means you just crush your grapes and let the juice turn, right? Let it spoil, in essence, like fresh orange juice in a bottle in the sun? So if somebody’s claiming they use native yeasts, what does it tell you?

DiGiulio: If I believe they’re really doing it, and it’s not just hype, native yeasts tend to give the most complex flavors.

DD: And malolactic fermentation—you hear about that a lot with Chardonnay, but what does it mean to a red wine?

DiGiulio: Malolactic fermentation is a conversion of malic acid, the predominant acid in apples, to lactic acid, which is the acid in milk. So think about the difference in tartness between an apple and a glass of milk, and then think of malolactic fermentation as a way of reducing the tartness in a wine. The vast majority of red wines beg for it, and the vast majority go through it.

DD: OK, barrel aging.

DiGiulio: The heavier the wine, and the more complex, the more it benefits from time in a barrel because it adds flavor from the oak itself and it helps soften the tannins, to make wine more palatable. On the minus side, barrel aging diminishes fruit character. Think about fresh fruit, and the more quickly you eat a peach off a tree, the more natural fruit flavor you’ll get. If it sits around, you get less. It’s the same with wine, but certain wines have enough tannin and fruit intensity that you can age them in a barrel and end up with something well balanced.

DD: French versus American oak?

DiGiulio: Just different flavor and tannin profiles, so it comes down to winemaker preference. In general, French oak has a more subtle impact on the tannins and the aromatics, so if you’re going to be aging a wine for a long time in wood, and you want to maintain more of a natural fruit character, French oak is usually the better choice. American oak has a more obvious impact early on, so if you’re going to market sooner or you want a flavor boost, that would generally be your choice.

DD: Filtration?

DiGiulio: When somebody says their wine is unfined and unfiltered, in general, it’s a winemaker swinging for the fences, trying for notoriety or a high price point, and wanting to retain as much of the natural fruit character as possible. Fining (a process that clarifies a wine, and sometimes involves egg whites) and filtration can both be good things, but they also take away something. We tend to fine wines when the tannin structure hasn’t resolved itself to where it’s pleasant—maybe we didn’t have the right barrels, or enough time, or we had an odd year with a tremendous amount of tannin and fining is a way to balance it. Filtration is similar: Maybe the two fermentations didn’t quite turn all of the sugar into alcohol or the malic acid to lactic acid, so your wine’s a little unstable. It might easily start up a new fermentation in the bottle, which is a disaster.

DD: TA means total acidity, right? So talk to me about that.

DiGiulio: Well, the basic story is that the lower the pH number, the higher the acidity; and the higher the TA number, the higher the acid. But it’s all within a narrow range, and the way they react with each other is just as important as the two numbers individually, so, in the end, all it gives you is a very loose … OK, let me say it this way: I wish we never put those things on a product sheet, because they’re not meaningful unless you know your wine chemistry and really know the history of that particular wine. I just wish that as an industry we never even went there. If you were buying your wine based on that information, you’re going about it the wrong way. It’s like buying a car based on paint chips, and you get a minivan when you wanted a two-door.

My Takeaway (in the form of a close reading of the Artistry data):

The Blend: Seems to me that I’d have to just taste Artistry from a few vintages, because the blend is going to be shifting year to year, in response to vintage changes in each varietal. But, by and large, we’re talking about a blend of the basic Bordeaux varietals.

Fermentation: This guy is doing it the natural way, taking the risk of working with wild yeast because he’s going for complex flavors. The malolactic bit? I guess most reds go through it.

Barrel Aging: Twenty-two months is a good long time, so I’m guessing this means he had big, excellent fruit to work with, big tannins he wanted to smooth off, and an interest in adding a lot of subtle wood flavors; the French oak choice apparently makes sense with the long aging, because it wouldn’t add too much flavor.

Filtration: Well, sounds like unfined, unfiltered is a way of saying he believes in his fruit, nothing went screwy in his fermentations, and he’s going for complexity.

Production and Alcohol: I didn’t actually ask DiGiulio about this stuff because it seemed less pressing. Next time, perhaps.

TA and pH: DiGiulio’s view is clearly that I shouldn’t worry about this noise, at least not on a product sheet for a single wine. Maybe if I were comparing those numbers on a bunch of different wines, it would be more relevant.

Suggested Retail Price: Hey, 40 bucks is real money.

Lastly, My Tasting Notes

This is a terrifically dark wine that smells like cherries, leather, and spice, and that has a great combination of bright, fresh-fruit acidity and inky plumlike concentration. I thought it was fantastic. Highly recommended, with a great food pairing to follow in the next post.

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