Why Altitude Matters In Wine

23 April 2019

Vineyards in Salta

There’s something of a fashion for wine from higher-altitude vineyards nowadays, perhaps coinciding with the fashion for cool-climate wines. I’m not one to follow fashions, of course, but in this case, I’m all for it. One of the reasons the wines of Argentina achieve such richness and fruitiness is because of the altitude of the vineyards.

Mendoza is already getting up there, set at the foot of the Andes at about 3,000 feet above sea level. But lesser-known Salta gets even higher, with vineyards at upwards of 6,000 feet.

But who cares? Why is altitude important?

I consulted my Oxford Companion to Wine, which had this to say about Salta, for example: “Even the lower vineyards in Salta are at 1,650 m/5,413 ft, and because of this elevation, the vine is forced to protect itself from extreme weather, resulting in lower yields and thick skins, which produce concentrated, full-bodied wines that are also extremely fragrant.”

Many argue that the diurnal temperature shift (the difference between the daytime and nighttime temperatures) at higher elevations help grapes ripen while maintaining their acidity, as opposed to grapes ripened somewhere uniformly warm, where they might simply end up too sugary.

But how much does elevation really come through in the flavor? Does it make a palpable difference, or is it just another marketing ploy? We did a highly unscientific experiment to determine the answer, blind-tasting a Norton Malbec from Mendoza and a higher-elevation Amalaya Malbec from Salta. Let’s see if we can tell which is which!

Get Out Of Your Wine Rut

30 March 2019

Looking at the number of grape varieties about which I’ve written — I count some 146 — it seems almost unbelievable that I could find myself in a wine rut, but it happens even to me. It’s easy to pop into my favorite wine store, grab a couple of my standard bottles and scoot, without giving the new items on the shelf much thought. My current go-to wines may sound rather exotic — Félicette Grenache Blanc and Ivanović Prokupac, for example — but I’ve bought dozens and dozens of bottles of each. They’re not exotic to me, they’re just comfort wines.

There’s nothing wrong with comfort wines, of course, but I have a feeling that if you’re reading this blog, you’re interested in escaping whatever sort of wine rut you’re in and tasting something new. The problem, I realize, is that unless you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll have a hard time homing in on the wine that’s right for you. Let’s say you like light and bright Pinot Grigio, but you’re ready to try something else. Are you supposed to look at the list of 146 grape varieties on the right side of this page, and hope that the one you choose to read about will suit you? How would you guess that I would suggest trying, say, Verdicchio, which isn’t even on the list? There’s no way to get there from here.

In fact, most blogs aren’t set up to help people with that sort of dilemma. So on a recent episode of Name That Wine, Liz and I decided to address that problem. We talk about several popular grape varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, among others, and suggest alternatives that will likely give you the same satisfaction:

Now I just have to figure out what a good substitute for Prokupac is…

A Cocktail Hack: With A Twist

16 March 2019

Those of us who live in the north could be forgiven for thinking that absolutely nothing is in season right now. Even ramps, the first vegetable of spring, are a good month away at least. But in fact, we’re still within citrus season. You may have noticed in the last few weeks that a wider variety of citrus fruit has appeared on store shelves. Now is the time when you might find pink variegated lemons, blood oranges, or perhaps even a Buddha’s hand or two.

Citrus, of course, is a key component of countless cocktails, which often incorporate the juice, peel or both. If you’re like me, you likely just juice the fruit and toss the peel, unless the cocktail happens to call for a twist. And the importance of a twist should not be discounted, tempting though it may be for the home bartender to skip that step. A twist adds wonderful fragrance to a cocktail, giving the drink an additional layer of experience.

Sometimes I like to toss a piece of zest or two into a shaker, in order to release the citrus oils directly into the cocktail (I often make Manhattans this way). And it can be delicious to muddle sugar and citrus peel together, creating a flavorful oleo saccharum. The peel has a great many uses. What would an Old Fashioned be without a strip of orange zest? Just whiskey and bitters and sugar. Not bad, but it’s the twist that raises the Old Fashioned from good to great.

The trouble is that I often don’t have any citrus lying about. Perhaps I ate an orange or two during the week, but by Friday night cocktail hour, they’re long gone. Frustrated by my routine lack of zest, I hit on a simple idea: What if, before I peeled my Sumo Mandarin snack, I took out my paring knife and zested the fruit, saving the peel for later in the freezer? I took out a small plastic baggie and piled in some zest. I later did the same with a lemon I needed for a sauce. (Few cocktails seem to call for lime zest, for some reason.)

I tried out the frozen orange peel recently when I made a simple Whiskey Sour for myself. (It’s 2 parts bourbon, 3/4 part lemon juice, 3/4 part simple syrup. To make simple syrup, mix equal parts sugar and water in a small bowl or glass measuring cup and stir until combined; microwaving very briefly can help.) I love this cocktail, and an orange twist does indeed add another dimension. Once I had shaken the drink, I took out a large slice of frozen zest, warmed it between my hands and gave it a twist over the glass.

Well, it didn’t exactly shower the cocktail with orange oil. When you give fresh orange peel a twist, it breaks the cells containing its fragrant oils, giving the cocktail an enticing perfume. Perhaps freezing the zest had caused the cells to break prematurely; it did feel a little limp once it was thawed.

I tried again, making a second Whiskey Sour (work, work). This time, I warmed some zest in my hands and dropped it straight into the shaker. I poured the liquid ingredients in, mashed the peel around with a spoon, added ice cubes and shook. In this case, the zest made more of a difference, adding a hint of extra depth to the cocktail.

So, it seems that fresh citrus zest is indeed best. But frozen zest works well when muddled with other ingredients, giving a cocktail a little more complexity. That alone makes it worthwhile to keep some frozen peel on hand. After all, it’s not much work to zest a fruit before you juice it, and a little baggie of peel takes up little space in your freezer. And it’s not difficult to find additional uses for the frozen zest in cooking, both in savory dishes and desserts.

It’s a simple, seemingly obvious cocktail hack, to keep frozen zest for those moments when you don’t have a fresh piece of fruit. But it took me eight years of writing this blog to figure it out! Give it a try — especially if you are lucky enough to find a fragrant Buddha’s hand this citrus season — and let us know in the comments below how frozen zest works out (or doesn’t) for your cocktails.

What Vintages Are Best?

28 February 2019

As I poured a glass of wine for a friend, she asked me a surprising question. “So, what makes a wine vintage? If it’s five years old or older?” I was taken aback at first, but I realized the question was quite reasonable. Vintage clothes, for example, don’t come from a specific year. “Vintage” in that case just means old.

Most wine drinkers already understand what a vintage wine is, but the question of which vintages are best is far less clear. Of course, vintages vary according to region. And certain authorities ascribe quality ratings to each year, which means that there must be general agreement on a region’s good years and bad years, right? Well, sort of.

If someone tells you to avoid a certain vintage, take that advice with a grain of salt. Just because the 2016 vintage in Burgundy was bad for growers, for example, it doesn’t mean that the bottle of 2016 Burgundy in front of you is bad. In our latest Name That Wine episode, we explain why.

We also tackle the challenge of chronologically ordering three different vintages of Alloro Vineyard Pinot Noir. As we blind-taste the 2015, 2014 and 2013, we talk about how wines change over time, and do our best to put that knowledge into practice. Alas, the wines we’re tasting aren’t very far apart, so we’ve set ourselves up for quite a difficult task! Well, if nothing else, we can laugh at ourselves:

Note: We received these three bottles of wine as complimentary samples for review on Name That Wine.

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