Springtime, Sunshine ... WINE TASTING!

You guys, it has been a cold and nasty winter over here in the Mid-Atlantic. I know, I know, all the New Englanders are all like, "9 feet of snow!" but in response I have some half-hearted comment about how you all are used to it and how DC IS PRACTICALLY THE SOUTH AND ANYTHING BELOW 45F MAKES MY BONES FREEZE AND I CAN BARELY GET OUT OF BED. Plus the entire city shuts down over one inch of snow-like precipitation. The drama of winter is intense around here, people. Wikipedia gives us credit for "SnOMG" for a reason.

ANYWAY. All of that to say that it's finally getting warm enough to climb out of the hibernation hole and head out to Virginia for a little wine tasting.

We've written about Glen Manor Vineyards before, and it still remains one of our favorite local wineries (and maybe favorite, ever? In any case, they are friendlier than the French).

This past weekend, Jeff White, Glen Manor's vigneron, hosted a special barrel tasting with his 2014 vintages.

Barrel tastings are literally what they sound like - the wine is still aging in the barrel, and is tasted for quality (or for fun!) by inserting a wine thief (a long, glass metal tube that pulls up the wine) into the bunghole (this is the hole in the barrel - yes, it's called a bunghole. I know, I snicker every time. Sometimes wine is unintentionally irreverent and therefore hilarious) and pulling wine out into the glass. Vintners do this periodically to taste how the wine is aging, test the acidity and chemical levels, and also to get a sense of which barrel will be their base for a blend.

In this case, Jeff offered us the opportunity to taste some key differences in a wine as it ages - a first for me. We tasted the differences in yeast strains, the differences in grapes from two different plots in the vineyard, and also the differences in barrel treatments. Cognitively, I know all of these things make a difference in how a wine develops. But I'd never experienced them outside the classroom before. Turns out there is something to the whole "learning and then doing" thing. I guess I should have focused more on that in my physics lab...

Anyway, a word about how these factors impact wine development.

Yeast. We all know that yeast is a basic component to making wine. Yeast eats grape sugar, and the result is alcohol. Poof! Science. (See, I did pay attention in lab! To the important stuff, anyway.) Winemakers can change certain variables about their wine with the strain of yeast they choose to use. It's not too far off to say that yeast changes everything.

Allow me to whip out some of my utterly mundane wine trivia - the most frequent yeast strain used in winemaking is a cultured yeast known as saccharomyces cereviseae. (I made a flashcard on this type of yeast for my last wine exam. This marks exactly the second time I've ever applied this knowledge).

Cultured yeast means it's packaged and ready to go - it's inoculated into the must (must is the almost-wine), and when applied, issues predictable results. However, there are all types of yeast that can be used to influence wine development. A lot of them are cultured, but some winemakers are rebels about it and use ambient yeast in their winemaking. Ambient yeast is the yeast that's indigenous to the area and basically what the name implies - wild. Ambient (or indigenous) yeast is everywhere. It is on surfaces in the winery, blowing around in the air, and sitting on vegetation near the vines. Instead of being manually added to the must (almost-wine), it colonizes naturally and begins its work turning juice into wine. (For you Upstate New Yorkers, a fabulous winery that excels at using ambient yeast in their wine is Freedom Run. Take a visit.)

At Glen Manor, we were able to sample two Cabernet Francs that were fermenting with two different strains of yeast. The difference in taste and texture was remarkable. There's a whole lot of science that goes into how a yeast strain impacts the development of tannin chains, flavor profiles, and the whole 9 wonky yards. I'll spare you the re-hash and just leave you with the idea that if you're every able to chat with a winemaker about it (and taste some samples!), do it.

Site Selection. Site selection is another really big factor in wine development. It boils down to this: you don't want your grapes to get too hot or too cold, too wet, or too shady. Basically, winemaking grapes are the mother of all Goldilocks. They want everything just right. Generally, the ideal layout for a vineyard is on a south-facing slope, so the vines get the most direct sunlight. (As with any rule, there are many exceptions to this.) Why is this important?

When you distill it down, grape vines are just plants. And plants love sun. Remember photosynthesis? (Yes, science class. Again.) Sunlight spurs the conversion of carbon dioxide and water into sugar. In the case of vines, the sugar is stored in the grapes. And the grapes make the wine. The amount and intensity of the sunlight influences the sugar production in the wine - the hotter the climate, the sweeter the grapes, generally speaking. More grape sugar also leads to higher alcohol wines (recall what I refer to as the "happy hour equation": sugar + yeast = alcohol. The more sugar in the grapes, the more alcohol is produced). This is one of the reasons why a wine from Lodi, California, where the grapes sit in the hot sun, tastes different than a wine from the Niagara Escarpment, up by Canada, which gets fewer warm days and less sun.

At Glen Manor, we tasted Cabernet Sauvignon grown from vines planted north-to-south, and east-to-west. The differences weren't nearly as drastic as a comparison between California and New York, but they were noticeable in subtle differences in the length, ripeness and viscosity of the wine.

Barrel Selection. One of the last steps in the creation of a wine is selecting what type of barrel to age it in. Think of it like the final step in a long recipe - the barrel is where the wine will bake for the next several years, and the type of oak selected can impart different textures and flavors. In the States, we are most familiar with barrels made of new French Oak. Have you ever sucked down a big, buttery Chardonnay? Then you've tasted wine aged in new French Oak - it imparts those flavors of vanilla, caramel and toast. (It also occasionally comes with the overly done up, aggressive older women whose fondness for heavily-oaked Chardonnay has given us the delightful moniker of "cougar juice.")

Lots of wineries - American and otherwise - use barrels made from American oak, which can impart notes of sweet coconut and dill. Hungarian and Eastern European oak barrels are also used for nuttier, richer flavors. Some oak doesn't taste at all. That's called neutral oak.

Jeff had us taste two Petit Verdots aged in French oak barrels that had been seasoned over different time periods - the first over 36 months, and the second over 24 months. ("Seasoning" means that the barrel are toasted to attain a char that imparts flavor.) The differences in the wine were most noticeable in the aromas and the integration. By that I mean, the Petit Verdot aged in the 36 month barrel had stronger aromas, which makes sense - the char on the barrel is longer. The 36 month wine was also a little bit more integrated. The tannins were smoother, because barrels allow the interplay of oxygen with tannin, which causes the tannin to soften. Either way, I am a fanatic about Petit Verdot from Glen Manor, so both went down quickly!

And thus ended this lovely day in Virginia wine country.  In the meantime, it's ROSÉ season, people!