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Temp – Sulfites – Oak (Fra) – Oak (US) – Cork


Wines can go bad for all kinds of
reasons, most of which are betrayed by the way they smell. If they
develop acetic acid, they smell like vinegar. If they contain
hydrogen sulfide, they smell like rotten eggs. If the Brettanomyces
yeast affects them, they smell like wet dogs, saddle blankets, or
horse manure — though some people like that (especially if they’re

The most common kind of wine spoilage, however, is
beyond the control of a winemaker — and is also one of the hardest
flaws to identify. That’s when a wine is “corked,” or ruined by a
bad stopper.

A corked wine smells like a damp basement,
mildewed books, or — in the mind of wine.com Senior Wine Merchant
Jeff Prather — “your grandmother’s attic.” Basically, we’re talking
mold: a problem that, according to recent estimates, contaminates as
much as 7 percent (about one out of every 15) of all bottles of

Mold is sometimes found in the bark of Quercus
, the cork tree, which is raised commercially in Portugal,
Spain, and North Africa. Processed cork can also pick up mold if
stored in humid conditions; mold spores, after all, are found almost
everywhere. In any case, it wreaks havoc in wine when it encounters
the chlorine chemicals that, ironically enough, have traditionally
been used to sterilize corks. A compound inadvertently produced by
this confrontation — trichloranisole, or TCA — results in a dank,
musty smell that can be detected by the human nose in concentrations
as tiny as six parts per trillion.

“Most people don’t
recognize corkiness for what it is,” says Prather. “They just think
it’s bad wine and as a result, they decide they don’t like that
winery, or that winemaker, or that type of grape, or wine from that
country. Corked wine can also take the blame for other problems,
like oxidation or Brettanomyces or volatile acidity. It’s probably
the wine world’s worst enemy.”

Many contemporary cork
manufacturers have now abandoned bleach, opting to clean their corks
with hydrogen peroxide or sulfur dioxide or even ozone.
Chloroanisole chemicals, however, are also found in other products —
for example, pesticides employed in (cork) forests and preservatives
applied to wooden storage pallets. Jack Squires, vice president of
Napa’s Amorim Cork America (its parent corporation is the world’s
biggest cork producer) says that his company has discovered corks
contaminated by their shipping containers — a problem that also
affects beer and coffee. “Now we only use stainless-steel pallets,”
Squires reports.

They also use a Gas Chromatogram Mass
Spectrometer, which can detect TCA in concentrations of only one
part per trillion. “We reject a lot of corks,” announces Squires,
who, despite such recent advancements in the battle against
corkiness, still stops short of guaranteeing 100 percent taint-free
wine closures for the immediate future.

“Cork is not a magic
product that appears out of thin air,” says Prather. “When you
extract it from tree bark, it’s brown and organic with bugs in it.
It takes nine years for a cork tree to replace its bark — and in
nine years and a day we strip it all over again. We use the bark to
stopper a wine that took years of work to make, then age it for five
or ten or 20 more years and finally invite our best friends over to
drink it, only to have the whole evening ruined by a bad cork.”

Made in

American oak, when used in barrels for aging
wine, is sometimes disparaged for its tannic, aggressive taste.
Anyone who claims that it’s naturally inferior to French oak,
however, is going to get an argument from Paul Draper.

Draper is winemaker and CEO at Ridge Vineyards, one of the
world’s most distinguished wineries. As the person who, more than
any other vintner, is credited with pulling Zinfandel up by its
bootstraps into a fine wine — and whose flagship product, Ridge
Montebello, is one of California’s most exclusive Cabernet
Sauvignons — Draper has been experimenting with and refining the use
of American oak for three decades. Today he says he’d “put American
oak up against the best French oak any day, whether you’re making
Zinfandel, richer California Cabernets, or Bordeaux or Rhone
varieties in a decent year.”

In the old days, Draper says,
the problem with American oak was that “winemakers didn’t know
anything about coopering. They just ordered what everybody else was
ordering, which was wood that had been kiln-dried. That has a very
different taste from air-dried French oak — it’s cruder in any
number of ways, and it created a stigma that still persists. But now
that American oak barrels are being made with the best methods, it’s
a different story.”

Draper says that “the single most
important thing that’s happened with American oak in the last ten
years is insistence on air-drying. That results in a much finer
taste — a classic taste, with complexity, depth, and finesse. The
flavors are slightly different, but unless you’re loading your wines
with oak, even French coopers can’t pick American oak out.”

Draper is fond of quoting a study performed at the turn of
the century. A 10-year experiment in Bordeaux found that, of the top
half-dozen types of oak used for aging wine, the top three in
quality were found to be Baltic; the fifth was Bosnian or
Yugoslavian; American was fourth; and French was sixth. “Baltic oak
was famous in the early part of the 20th century,” Draper says. “But
the First World War devastated its forests, and the Second World War
finished them off.”

Ridge is particular about the geographic
sources of its American oak. “We use oak from West Virginia , Ohio,
Minnesota, and Arkansas,” Draper reports. “We only pick from hilly
or mountainous regions — if the wood is grown where the weather is
cold, its grain is tighter.” (And tighter grain tastes less tannic.)
Air-dried for 18-24 months and carefully coopered, such oak “is
without question equal to French,” in Draper’s opinion.

Still, he admits, “some people love imported shoes. And some
people still have to have French oak.”

War of the
Woods: The French-American Oak Conflict

In all
likelihood, your preferences in wine have a lot to do with how you
feel about the taste of oak. Whether or not — and how much, or how
long — a wine is aged in a wooden barrel has an enormous effect on
the flavor of the final product.

As with most aspects of
wine, there’s more to the story than meets the mouth: The toasty or
vanillin taste of oak itself is highly dependent on where it came
from. It boils down to a familiar choice — or conflict — for wine
buffs: Old World or New World, or more specifically, French or

Most of the French oak used in wine barrels is
grown in the areas of Allier, Nievre, and Limousin in central
France. Employed in moderation, its flavor is subtle, delicate, and
complex, with hints of resin and sweet spices such as cinnamon and
sandalwood. To bend the staves into barrel shape, French oak is
traditionally heated over a wood fire, which gives it that toasty

American oak, grown mainly in the Midwest and Oregon,
is wider-grained and thus more tannic-tasting than French. It has a
brasher, greener flavor, more reminiscent of a cabinet shop than a
bakery. Sprinkle dill weed on a bowl of popcorn, add a tablespoon of
vanilla, and you’ll be a long way toward identifying the taste of
American oak.

That might not sound like much of a contest,
but American oak has a big advantage for winemakers: Its cost is
roughly half that of French. Moreover, its aggressive taste marries
well with powerfully flavored wines. Australian Shiraz, Rioja, and
California Zinfandel (notably those from Ridge Vineyards, one of
America’s most esteemed wineries) are all commonly, and
successfully, aged in American oak.

“American oak has a
different flavor profile than French, but it’s potentially no less
interesting, complex, or refined,” says wine.com Wine Merchant Burke
Owens. “It’s like comparing spices in cooking. Vietnamese and Thai
cuisines are closely related, but they’re also very different.
Vietnamese has earthier, gutsier tones, with more bitter and sour
components; Thai has more aromatic complexity — it’s sweeter and has
more fire. Both are part of the same family, but they’re more like
cousins than siblings. Same with French and American oak.”


This succinct alert has given rise to
widespread confusion among wine consumers. For hypersensitive
people, it might seem tantamount to “contains DDT” or “conceals
low-level nuclear waste,” yet it’s found on the label of almost
every wine produced in the United States. Does it indicate something

“Sulfites” in this case means sulfur dioxide. It’s a
natural byproduct of fermentation (bread contains it, too), but most
winemakers also add sulfur as a preservative. Essentially, it allows
you to drink wine without holding your nose.

Sulfur dioxide
does two good things for vintners: it kills bacteria, and it
protects wine against the harmful effects of oxygen. Oxygen in small
amounts is good (which is why we age wine in barrels and aerate it
in decanters), but as wine.com Senior Wine Merchant Peter Marks
explains, “Like everything else, too much of it is bad.” Excess
oxygen turns wine brown; even worse, it encourages the growth of
acetic acid, which can transform wine into vinegar.

dioxide staves off this disaster by bonding with oxygen, reducing
the amount of the latter that’s free to work mischief. It also
inhibits acetic bacteria and wild yeasts, which can cause
refermentation and consequent cork blowouts.

So if sulfites
are natural and beneficial, why the label advisory? Because sulfur
dioxide has an adverse effect on one-half of one percent of the
population. Most of those affected are asthmatics, though some
people also maintain that sulfites give them headaches. Various
things in wine could cause throbbing craniums. But for those who are
sure that they’re sensitive to sulfites, Marks offers this advice.

“First, drink red wine instead of white,” he says. “Red wine
contains less added sulfur than white, because red has more natural
tannins to protect it from oxidation. Second, drink older wines —
over time, sulfur bonds with wine in the bottle and diminishes in

“Third, remember that low-alcohol wine and sweet
wine usually contain more sulfur than dry, high-alcohol wines. And
fourth, bear in mind that mass-market jug wines probably have higher
levels of sulfur to protect them against the effects of shipping and
unpredictable storage.”

So the solution is to drink only
old, expensive high-alcohol red wine?

“That’s right,” he
laughs. “Ten-year-old Turley Zinfandel would be perfect.”

Room-Temperature Myth

Last week we discussed the hazards
of serving white wine too cold. Drinking red wine too warm, though,
is almost as common — and even more unpleasant. Frigid temperatures
diminish flavors and aromas, but heat creates the opposite problem:
It gives rise to too many.

Traditional wisdom demands that
red wine be served at “room temperature” — age-old advice that
originated in Europe before the advent of central heating. Back
then, when a bottle was brought up from the cellar, its temperature
might have soared as high as 60 degrees Fahrenheit if a fire was in
the hearth. Today it’s a different — and, for red wine, more
detrimental — story.

At temperatures of 70 degrees or
higher, alcohol becomes volatile — that is, it’s released from
liquid as a gas. This will immediately dominate one’s experience of
any wine: Aromas grow sharp, flavors become coarse, and the finish
tastes hot from alcohol, obliterating the sense of fruit. More often
than we like to think, this occurs in restaurants that store their
wines in a bar, kitchen, or closet. Such bottles might be served at
temperatures as high as 85 degrees — literally warm to the touch.

If this fate befalls you, the second thing you should
request (after the manager’s head) is an ice bucket. Five or ten
minutes in near-freezing water will bring the wine close to cellar
temperature. Should eyebrows rise in your vicinity, you can just
smile back benignly, secure in the knowledge that — unlike those
slavish “room temperature” worshippers at the adjoining table —
you’re getting everything from your wine that you paid for.