Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Oldest Wine in the World?

Earlier this month, in Xhina, China, archaeologists of the Baoji Archaeology Institute released information that they may have unearthed what could be the oldest container of wine in the world.  It is definitely the oldest wine ever found in China.

Chinese Wine
The reports indicate that six bronze vessels, measuring measure about 3 feet long and 8.25 inches high, were discovered in Shaanixi province in the Shigushan Mountains in Baoji City.  The containers were located in the tomb of a nobleman of the West Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC – 771 BC.)

Archaeologists said that one of the vessels contained a liquid that could be heard when shaken. Wine containers of that period could be used for the heating and storage of wine, as flasks or drinking sets, and were ornately decorated.  The containers that were discovered were sealed with what they are calling a “prohibition device” and could not be opened at that time.

This prohibition device was created during the Western Zhou Dynasty to limit excess drinking.  During the previous Shang Dynasty (1600 BC – 1046 BC), wine became a symbol of vice and corruption, so access to it was limited in the West Zhou Dynasty.  China is thought to be one of the oldest wine drinking cultures in the world.

The finding of this prohibition device is actually considered to be a greater discovery than the potential wine. The square shaped device was fitted on top of a wine vessel to limit the amount that could be poured and drank at any one time.

The liquid in the container will be tested to determine what it is.  However, it may not turn out to be a wine made from wild grapes. In China, wine made from rice, fruit and honey was more common.  If it is indeed wine, it will replace the Roman wine found in Germany in 1867 as the oldest wine in the world.

Roman Wine
The Roman wine is thought to be over 1,650 years old and sealed with wax.  It was discovered in 1867 during an excavation to build a house, near Speyer, one of the oldest cities in Germany.  The wine was buried in the sarcophagus of a Roman Nobleman from the 4th Century.

The yellow-green container was one of several discovered at the site, but the only one to still contain wine.  Researchers believe that olive oil was floated on top of the wine to preserve it from oxidation.  It is said that during WW I, Kaiser Wilhelm’s chemists analyzed the white liquid and determined it to be wine.

There was talk of opening the bottle in 2011, but earlier this year museum officials decided that would be too risky of a proposition.  According to Ludger Tekampeone of the museum officials, “It’s not clear what would happen if air gets into the wine.”  Scientists were wanting to test the liquid to see exactly how old it is, what type of grape it is made from, and if it did indeed come from a local vineyard of the time.

The bottle has remained on permanent display at the History Museum of the Palatinate in Speyer, Germany for over 100 years.  It is located in their Wine Museum, the first such museum open to the public.  You may take a virtual tour of the Weinmuseum here,

Wine has been a part of our world culture, cuisine, and cultivation for thousands of years.  Archaeology shows that the earliest known production of wine occurred in Georgia around 6,000 BC.  The earliest proof of wine production in Europe dates back 6,500 years ago in Greece.  And in China, traces of wild wine date from the second and first millennium BC.

It will be interesting to see if this is the oldest container of wine yet found in the world, and how China handles it’s discovery.  Meanwhile, oenophiles around the world will raise a glass and await the results.  Enjoy!

~ Joy

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wine Competitions and Awards Matter

Last week we discussed wine critics and the value of wine ratings.  This week we take a look at wine competitions and wine awards.

A wine competition is an organized event, usually held by a state, an organization, the media, or the wine industry.  Wines are entered by the producing wineries, which pay a fee, usually from $40 to over $100 PER entry, and send anywhere from 2 to 12 bottles of each wine to be judged.
To submit a wine for consideration in these competitions, a winery fills out a competition form indicating the grape variety or proprietary name, where it was grown, the year made, the percentage of residual sugar and the current price charged for the bottle.  This helps the competition staff to place the wine in the correct categories for judging.

The wines are judged by professionals in the industry, peers, or consumers.  Awards are given and may include medals or ribbons to signify bronze (3rd place) silver (2ndplace) and gold (1stplace.)  A double or Concordance gold means that every judge at the competition gave that wine a gold medal.  These competitions usually have a “Best of Class” category and a “Best of Show” award, as well.

Wineries enter what they consider to be their best wines in these competitions, hoping to medal so that they can claim a Gold, Silver or Bronze in that competition.  It’s an impressive selling point for the wine and is a great marketing tool for the winery.

Judging for wine competitions are done ‘blind.’ This means that the judges do not know who made the wine, where it was produced or the price it sells for.  This is done to prevent any bias, so that the wine is judged on its merits alone.

Wines are usually arranged in flights.  A flight will include wines from the same vintage year or same type of grapes but made by different wineries. A tasting flight is a selection of wines, usually three to twelve, to be reviewed.  Judges at the same table are served the same wines in each flight.  They use a judging form to evaluate each wine in its own merits.  Each judge scores the wine, signs the form and turns it in.  After the forms are picked up, judges can discuss their opinions.

Wines may be judged on a combination of the following elements:
1)  Appearance – The wine should be clear and bright without dullness or particles.
2)  Color – The color of the wine will depend on the type of grapes used.  A white wine that shows amber tones or a red with bronze edges indicated oxidization.
3)  Aroma & Bouquet – This can include many things but a wine that smells moldy, dirty or corky will loose points.
4)  Volable Acidity – Does the wine smell like vinegar? If so, 0 points.
5)  Total Acidity – This is felt in the mouth.  If the wine is judged to be too flat or too sharp, points are deducted.
6)  Sweetness/Sugar – Sugar and acid should be balance.
7)  Body – This is the mouth-feel.
8)  Flavor – It should correspond to the grapes used.  Anything metallic is not good.
9)  Astringency – This accounts for bitterness.
10) General or Overall Quality – This is the one category that is subjective.

Wine judges use a 20 point scale when judging a wine.  This scale was developed in 1959 by Dr. Maynard Amerine at the University of California at Davis.  The UC Davis scale allots points in the following categories:
Appearance – (Up to 2 points)
Color - (Up to 2 points)
Aroma & Bouquet - (Up to 4 points)
Volable Acidity - (Up to 2 points)
Total Acidity - (Up to 2 points)
Sweetness/Sugar - (Up to 1 point)
Body - (Up to 1 point)
Flavor - (Up to 1 point)
Astringency - (Up to 1 point)
General Quality - (Up to 2 points)

Each wine is sampled and the judge scores it in each category from 0 to the maximum number of points allowed, based on a theoretical standard.

The UC Davis 20 point rating is scored as:
0 - 5 points - Objectionable
6 - 8 points - Deficient
9 - 11 points -  Acceptable
12 – 14 points – Average (Bronze)
15 – 17 points – Above average (Silver)
18 – 20 points – Outstanding (Gold)

After years of using this system, the American Wine Society created a different version of the 20 Point Scale.  The AWS version assigns points in these categories:
Appearance  (Up to 3 points)
Aroma & Bouquet - (Up to 6 points)
Taste & Texture - (Up to 6 points)
Aftertaste - (Up to 3 points)
Overall Impression - (Up to 2 points)

The AWS 20 point rating is scored as:
12 – 14 points – Good  (Bronze)
15 – 17 Excellent  (Silver)
18 – 20 Extraordinary (Gold)

The AWS scale is now being used by more and more competitions as the standard.  Wine judges are told to try to be objective, and somewhat restrained in their negative evaluations. 

Wine competitions are held around the world.  In the United States, there are several wine competition held annually, including:
Critics Challenge International
Finger Lakes International
International Eastern
San Francisco International

Most competitions are sponsored by those in the wine industry, state fair associations, or newspapers and magazines.  The Finger Lakes wine competition is different.  It is sponsored by Camp Good Days and Special Times, a not-for-profit 501 corporation that provides a camping experience and other benefits for children with cancer.

There is also a unique competition that is judged by select wine loving consumers. The Wine Lovers Consumer Wine Judging participants attend seminars on how to judge wine objectively, and are guided by an experienced advisor. This competition is held annually and sponsored by the Tasters Guild.

Keep in mind that small and medium sized wineries, those not located on the West Coast, and those that craft non-standard wines will probably be hard pressed to ever get a wine rating from a wine critic.  Wine competitions however are open and available to all commercials wineries to enter.  This is a chance to level the playing field for the small wineries and give their wines a chance to be noticed and shine.

So the next time you’re selecting a bottle of wine, don’t be so quick to look for the big name wines or the wine rating numbers. Instead, check out some of the wines offered by local and regional wineries.  See what awards they have won and take a chance on that gold, silver or bronze medal winner.  I think you will be pleasantly surprised with what you find.  Enjoy!

~ Joy

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Do Wine Ratings Matter?

Wine ratings are scores assigned by wine critics to a wine they have evaluated.  You may have noticed these numbers on the shelf talkers at your local liquor store or wine shop.  At first, the number looks impressive – anywhere from 82 to 100 points! But keep in mind there is no one set of rules for wine ratings.  So what do these numbers mean?  Who is critiquing these wines and what criteria do they use?  And does it really matter to the average wine drinker?

The 100 Point System
Most U.S. wine critics use a 100 point wine rating system.  All wines begin the process with 50 points automatically. Each wine is then allotted points for the following elements:
Color & Clarity (up to 5 points)
Aroma (up to 15 points)
Taste (up to 10 points)
Finish (up to 10 points)
Ability to age well (up to 5 points)
Overall quality of the wine (up to 5 points)

The Wine Advocate
There are several critics who evaluate wine in the U.S.  The best known, and considered by many to be the most influential, is Robert Parker.  He critiques for his publication, The Wine Advocate  He began The Wine Advocate as a wine newsletter in 1978 and now publishes over 7,500 reviews a year. The Wine Advocate accepts no advertising.

Parker has been criticized by some for judging a wine based on how much pleasure it gives him and assigning ratings numbers based on his emotions.

Parker holds wine tastings in single-blind conditions, which according to his web site means, “that the same types of wines are tasted against each other and the producers’ names are not known). There are exceptions to this policy with respect to (1) all barrel tastings, (2) all specific appellation tastings where at least 25 of the best estates will not submit samples for group tastings and (3) for all wines under $25. The ratings reflect an independent, critical look at the wine.”   His main areas of interest concern wines from Bordeaux, California and the Rhone Valley. 

Parker uses a 100 point system to score the wines. For The Wine Advocate the ratings are given as follows:
50 – 59 points  - Unacceptable
60 – 60 points -  Below average with noticeable flaws
70 to 79 points – Average, but nothing special
80 - 89 points – Barely above average to very good
90 – 95 points – Outstanding, exceptional
96 – 100 points – Extraordinary wine. A classic; highly sought after

(Note: U.S. wine critics use a 100 point system while wine critics in Europe prefer a 20 point system. Each are based on that regions school grading system.) 

Wine Spectator

Wine Spectator is considered to be the “wine bible” for wine lovers.  The magazine began in 1978 in the U.S.  Each issue has between 400 and 1,000 wine reviews with detailed tasting notes.  The magazine’s editors review over 16,000 wines each year.

Wine Spectator has also received criticism about its wine ratings.  In 2008, a college student entered a fictional restaurant and its wine list for evaluation and received an Award of Excellence (Wine Spectator’s basic award for restaurants with well chosen wines.)  The wines listed were actually some of the lowest rated Italian wines in history.

Wines are reviewed from the bottle in blind tastings – i.e.: no one knows who the wine maker is or anything about the wine other than type of grape.  Wine Spectator also uses a 100 point system when rating a wine:
Again, the first 50 points awarded for the wine showing up.
50 – 74 points  - Not recommended
75 to 79 points – Mediocre; drinkable with minor flaws
80 – 84 points – Good wine, well made
85 – 89 points – Very good wine with special qualities
90 – 94 points – Outstanding wine, superior character
95 – 100 points – A classic wine - great

Wine Enthusiast
Wine Enthusiast magazine is more about the wine lifestyle and travel.  First published in 1988 in the U.S., Wine Enthusiast may hold blind tastings “or in accordance with accepted industry practices.  

Wine Enthusiast uses a scoring system from 80 to 100 points:
80 – 82 points – Acceptable – a casual wine
83 – 86 points – A good, everyday wine, often a good value
87 – 89 points – Very good, well recommended
90 – 93 points – Excellent, highly recommended
94 – 97 points – Superb wine, highly recommended
98 – 100 points – A classic – the pinnacle of quality

Decanter magazine began in 1975 in the United Kingdom and is published in over 90 countries.  Decanter holds blind wine tastings within specific wine regions and price ranges. This ensures that terroir is considered, and ‘like is compared to like’ when critiquing.  The magazine recommends over 4,000 wines each year. 

Decanter uses a five star scoring system:
1 Star  – Acceptable
2 Stars – Moderately good
3 Stars – Good
4 Stars – Very Good
5 Stars – Outstanding 

Concerns About the Rating System:
There are several concerns about the wine rating system including the fact that assigning wine ratings has an amazing effect on the wine market.  These numbers encourage or discourage specific grape and wine purchases, and can have a major effect on a wine’s price.

The wine rating system has also been criticized for creating a uniform sameness in wines throughout the world.  Since certain styles appeal to the wine critics, more and more winemakers are adjusting their methods to create wines that will receive a high wine ratings score.  The wine then becomes sought after and can be marketed and sold for a higher price.  Unfortunately, other than Decanter magazine, no magazine or wine critic mentioned that individualized style, and crafting to enhance the flavors of the terroir - the environmental conditions such as soil and climate that affect the grapes grown there and give the wine it’s exclusive flavors and characteristics - was looked favorably upon or encouraged.

Concerns have also been raised in the industry as to whether advertising dollars in these magazines could have some unintentional influence on wine ratings.

In the end, it is up to the consumer to decide if these numbers have relevance.  Just remember they are subjective to the critic – based on his or her individual palate and personal preferences.  Best bet is to use these scores as a guide.  Try some of the rated wines, in all point ranges, and see what you think.  After all – it should be about what YOU like and can afford to drink – and not a critic’s preference.

So what if a wine only scored 75 points?  If you like it – Enjoy!

~ Joy

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Red, White & Blue – Fruit Wines to Celebrate the Fourth

The Fourth of July is celebrated as Independence Day in the U.S.  It’s the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted, declaring America’s independence from Great Britain. 

It is celebrated throughout the country with BBQ’s, picnics, concerts, festivals, parades, family reunions, and fireworks.  And with numerous gatherings planned, what better time to celebrate your independence from grape wines and try some patriotic fruit wines instead.

Of course, we want to stay with the Red, White and Blue theme, so let’s consider what fruits fit in this category and what foods pair well with them.

Red -
When searching for red fruit wines the options are numerous – Cherry, Cranberry, Strawberry, Raspberry, and Watermelon.  All can be great choices for pairing with 4th of July meals.

Enjoy a Cranberry wine served with roasted (or fried) chicken. Also nice with grilled turkey burgers and BBQ pork.

Cherry wine can make pork and ham stand out.  Or for an excellent dessert idea, take a Cherry or Strawberry wine and serve with Cheesecake! 

Strawberry also works well with salmon and salad. Or save for a dessert of biscotti or Baked Brie. 

Raspberry wine is made for chocolate desserts – light or dark. 

Watermelon wine paired with Feta cheese and a salad is amazing.

White -
White fruit wines can include Pear, Apple, Peach, Apricot and Banana. 

A dry Pear wine goes well with seafood and poultry.  A sweeter pear wine works with spicy foods and cheese.

Apple wine goes with cheese dishes, pork, brats, and warmed apple tarts.  Try the spiced Apple wines with pound cake.

Peach wines work well with spicy meals, and don’t forget to pair with Peach Pie alamode!

Apricot wine is a go-to for BBQ dishes and Baked Brie.

Banana wine, (rare, but it exists : ) is great with an Angel food cake or a banana cake.

And Blue -
Those Blue wines might be tough to think of at first, but they are out there.  Consider Blueberry, Plum, Blackberry, Current, and Elderberry wines.

Pair a Blueberry wine with pork chops or steak. 

Plum wines go well with Asian Cuisine or with a hearty steak.

Blackberry wine and roast lamb or duck.  Also serve with hard  cheeses and nuts.

Current wine goes well with beef or pork as a main dish.

Elderberry wine can be served with smoked Salmon or other grilled white fish.

Consider these Food – Wine Questions When Pairing:

Is the food flavor mild or savory?  Is the meal fatty or lean?  Is the dish acidic or rich?  Once you can answer these questions, you can locate a fruit wine that will go well with your dominant dish.  Basically mild wines go with milder foods, and spicy, bold wines will lend more flavors to spicy, robust foods.

Just remember that fruit wines can vary tremendously, depending on how they are crafted and the sweetness.  Be adventurous with your fruit wine parings, and you’ll discover some excellent options along the way.

Have a Happy Fourth and Enjoy!

~ Joy