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Australia – Tannin – Riesling – ZAP – sur lie

Surly Aging,
Friendly Drinking

We’re now entering the quiet time of
the wine year, as the clamor of the holidays subsides and wines that
were harvested in the fall embark on the long process of maturation.
For many wines in both the Old World and New, this is the period of
sur lie aging.

Why can’t they be nicer about it, you might
ask? Not surly, silly: sur lie, a French term meaning “on the

Oh — the side of the winery away from the

No, lees is another confounded French word meaning
dregs or sediment — the deposit of grape solids that settles to the
bottom of a barrel as a wine ages.

This material consists of
dead yeast cells, seeds, pulp, stems, and skin fragments. Wines that
depend on fruity freshness may develop undesirable odors from
extended contact with lees, but others can actually benefit from it.
Lactic bacteria feed on micronutrients in sediment, encouraging
malolactic fermentation, which makes wine softer and more complex.
Also, since lees hoard oxygen (making wine less susceptible to
spoilage), wine aged on the sediment requires less sulfur dioxide to
be added as a preservative.

Some wines — notably Muscadet
and certain examples of Burgundian varietals — age on the lees for
as long as a year. The flavors of relatively neutral white grapes
(Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Melon) can be enhanced by sur lie aging,
as can red Pinot Noir. Some of the best makers of such wines even
stir the lees periodically to increase the wine’s contact with it. A
few go so far as to drizzle new wine over the used lees from
earlier, higher-end bottlings to enhance the complexity of the more
recent vintage.

As with any other endeavor, too much lees
contact can be a bad thing, although the final judgment is of course
a matter of taste. There can be such a thing as too much
flavor (though you’d never know it from the contemporary wine
market, which seems to search out sur lie and oak aging like a
stalker on the lookout for movie stars).

Two Weeks to
ZAP Mania

Now is a time of year when Zinfandel lovers
find themselves salivating even more profusely than usual. Such
Pavlovian symptoms are observable with the approach of January 27,
the date of the upcoming ZAP tasting in San Francisco.

(Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) was formed by a group of
impassioned wine producers in 1992 to raise awareness of Zinfandel
and promote it as America’s “native” wine. Like other members of the
Vitis vinifera family, Zinfandel’s origins lie somewhere in
Europe, but nobody has been able to determine exactly where; DNA
testing has shown the grape to be identical to the Primitivo of
southern Italy, but it’s documented in the United States earlier
than it can be traced to Italy. Zinfandel has been grown and
vinified in California since the mid-19th century, establishing it
as America’s contribution to the world of fine wine.

Zinfandel’s fortunes have risen and fallen
since its arrival in the New World 150 years ago, it’s always been a
grape and wine that inspired feverish loyalty. Now, as the 21st
century commences, Zin seems to have it both ways: It’s enjoying an
unprecedented level of popularity and prestige, but its adherents
still have the warm-and-cozy feeling of cult membership.

This phenomenon is on lavish display at the annual ZAP
tasting, a boisterous party that traditionally takes place on the
Saturday before the Super Bowl. Certified in the Guinness Book of
World Records as the world’s biggest one-varietal wine tasting, the
event attracted more than 200 wineries and 6,000 wine lovers last
year. This time, for its 10th anniversary, it’s being conducted in
two different buildings at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center.
Advance tickets cost $35 for ZAP members and $45 for non-members,
with a limited amount available at the door for $50 on the day of
the event.

The Joys of
German Riesling

In the cyclical business of wine
popularity, Riesling’s fortunes have been shy the last few years —
a state of affairs that’s usually associated with sweeping
dismissals of “sweet” wine. Wine.com senior merchant Tim Gaiser has
a few words to say about this distorted picture.

It’s been
my experience that giving a “nonbeliever” a glass of fine German
Riesling creates an instant convert. All the squawking about sweet
wines disappears after a sip or two and is never heard again. Never
mind that this is a country where millions of soft drinks are
guzzled every day and the favorite Chardonnays are anything but dry.

Why the dramatic change? The answer is simple: pleasure.
Wine is the most pleasurable beverage there is and few white wines
offer as much of it as the best German
Rieslings. This was underscored for me during a trip to
Germany last May. In 10 days, I visited 20 of the country’s finest
wineries and tasted more than 450 wines from the phenomenal 1999
vintage. For some estates, this harvest was the best since the
legendary 1959.

In reviewing my notes from the trip, I’ve
come to the following conclusions.

Riesling is made in a
dramatically wide range of styles, from bone-dry sparkling wines
produced by the Champagne method to the most brilliantly rendered
dessert wines, with stops at every station in between. There’s
definitely a Riesling for every wine lover’s palate.

Riesling contains the widest range of flavors I’ve ever
experienced in a single grape variety. Lovers of Chardonnay and
Pinot Noir might argue, but they can’t compete with a grape that’s
capable of conveying tastes as diverse as citrus, apple, pear,
peach, apricot, nectarine, cherry, strawberry, earth, slate,
mineral, pepper… the list goes on and on. I was completely bowled
over at the enormous range of flavors I tasted in the 1999 vintage.

Riesling is the most site-specific grape variety there is,
even beyond those used in the great white and red Burgundies.
Considering that many of the wines have very low alcohol (down to 8
percent), don’t undergo malolactic fermentation, and see no oak at
all, what remains is pure expression of fruit and the individual
terroir of the place where it’s grown.

Riesling is one of
the most versatile vinous partners with food. Its combination of
high acidity and low alcohol makes it a great match with any number
of different types of food, from fresh shellfish to wild game and
even red meat. Then there are the great dessert wines, which are so
remarkable on their own that they don’t even need dessert to
accompany them. One of my colleagues calls Riesling a “food
chameleon” and he’s right on the money.

Riesling ages as well as any other fine wine. During my trip, I
tasted both dry and sweet Rieslings that were 20, 30, even 40 years
old. Not one showed a trace of being over the hill; they were, in
fact, some of the most glorious wines I’ve ever tasted. Imagine
spending $20 on a bottle that can be cellared for 20 years or longer
— with most other wines, you can’t.

So what’s keeping you
from trying these wonderful wines?

The language?
German labels can be some of the most difficult to understand but as
with all imported wines at wine.com, we take pains to explain the
significance of every term.

Afraid of wines that have a
bit of residual sugar?
Put a Kabinett
or Spatlese
Riesling next to your favorite Chardonnay and the German wine
may prove to be drier. (Even if it isn’t, nothing is better with
spicy Asian cuisine.)

Tannin Salon

One of the most
ubiquitous words in wine reviews is “tannin.” Wine writers never
seem to tire of references to “round” tannins, “ripe” tannins,
“smooth” tannins, “tough” tannins, “gentle” tannins, and “supple”
tannins. It begins to seem that, if you don’t understand tannin, you
don’t understand wine (especially red wine). So just what the hell
is a tannin?

Tannins are organic compounds in plants,
trees, roots, and bark – or, in the case of wine, skins, seeds, and
stems. Tastewise, tannin doesn’t impart a flavor but a texture. In
concentrated quantities it sticks to the inside of your mouth, where
it creates a puckering sensation – a sensory effect that senior
wine.com merchant Tim Gaiser likens to that of overbrewed tea.

“Tannin is astringent,” Gaiser explains. “If a wine has too
much of it, it’s out of balance. But tannin isn’t a bad thing. It’s
a necessary component for wine to have structure and aging

In other words, the more tannin a wine has, the
better it will age? Not necessarily. “If a wine has a lot of tannin
that isn’t balanced by adequate fruit and acidity, it won’t age
well,” says Gaiser. “Eventually the fruit will fade, leaving nothing
but tannin. Balance is the key.”

Winemakers and
vineyard managers can control tannin in several ways. “Ripeness of
grapes dramatically affects the level and quality of tannins,” says
Gaiser. “Wines made from grapes that aren’t fully ripe often have
green, stemmy, hard tannins. Ripe tannins are finer and rounder

In other words: supple. Given a suitable climate,
ripeness (and its corollary, flavor development) results from such
factors as low vineyard yields and long growing seasons, which allow
extended hang-time for the fruit.

Tannin quality also
depends on the amount of time that a winemaker leaves fermenting
grape juice (“must”) in contact with the skins – a process referred
to as maceration.

“One of the main reasons California
Cabernets have gotten so much better in the last 10 years is that
longer maceration times have been used,” Gaiser says. “What’s
improved more than anything is texture, which speaks specifically to
tannin management.” In Bordeaux and California Cabernet, maceration
times commonly last three weeks or longer, a period that enables
tannins to grow rounder and gentler.

Tannin isn’t usually
associated with white wines because they don’t undergo maceration;
they’re pressed off the skins right away. (Almost all red grape
varieties contain clear juice, so the color of red wine is
attributable solely to extended skin contact.) But some white wines
do gain tannin from the new oak barrels in which they’re aged.

“A lot of oaky Chardonnays are just as tannic as red wines,”
Gaiser points out. “People don’t usually take that into account,
which is why Chardonnay can be so difficult to pair with food.”

A Tale of Two

Among wine enthusiasts, it’s now a commonly
held belief that the world’s most exciting region is Australia. Why?
A constellation of factors including old vines, new technology, and,
not insignificantly, the famous Australian mindset, which is
straightforward, unpretentious, and fun loving.

aren’t wine snobs,” observes wine.com senior merchant Jeff Prather.
“They’re down to earth. They have a European heritage, but they
started their own culture, which didn’t kowtow to tradition.
American wine lovers have always seemed to think that they had to
emulate Europe.”

Vibrant wine

Interestingly in that light, Australia has the
highest per-capita wine consumption in the English-speaking world.
It covers about the same amount of surface area as the United
States, but has only 6 percent of the population.

“Australians have huge amounts of arable land, but they
don’t have the population base to tend it,” says wine.com merchant
Bo Thompson. “As a result, they’ve had to learn to practice
winemaking through technology.” From computerized 70,000-gallon
tanks to state-of-the-art refrigeration to horizontal
“rotofermenters” that punch down grapes automatically, Australia is
the world’s trendsetter in winemaking technology.

addition to enabling the industry to get its work done, this
gadgetry has developed with an eye to serving the national palate.
Its enthusiasms can be described in three words: fruit, fruit, and
fruit. The trademark Australian wine style is big, ripe, and
extracted, emphasizing the flavor — and power — of the grape above

Advanced yet artisanal
Curiously, this is
consistent with another important though seemingly opposite trend in
the Aussie revolution: the renaissance of Old World artisanal
winemaking, a decidedly low-tech approach that focuses on ancient
vines, some dating to the 19th century.

“[The Australian
artisanal approach] has everything to do with what’s going on in the
vineyard,” says Thompson. “The recent generation has drastically
improved its vineyard techniques through different types of
trellising and experimentation with irrigation and dry farming.
They’re bringing back a lot of old vines that had been left to the
wild – for example, d’Arenberg’s Dead Arm Shiraz is made from
vines that have been half-killed by disease — divided right down
the middle. But the fruit extraction they’re getting is amazing.”

“If you name the greatest wines in Australia,” says Prather,
you’d have to include d’Arenberg, Penfolds Grange, Clarendon Hills, Elderton, and Henschke Hill of Grace…. A
lot of them are old-vine fanatics, and for that you have to pay a
price — those wines are expensive. But the other gift that
Australia gives the world is oceans of really good wine that
doesn’t pretend to be great. Wineries like Rosemount, Penfolds, Punters Corner, and Yering Station produce gigantic amounts of
bargain-priced wines with consistently terrific flavor. So what
you’ve got, really, is a tale of two continents: a tiny amount of
great artisanal wines and gigantic amounts of friendly, quaffable

What they all have in common, Prather sums up, is
that “they’re flat-out delicious. Australians have hit the sweet
spot of the modern palate: wines with consistently ripe and juicy
flavors due to their warm climate, but with really friendly textures
that aren’t overly tannic, astringent, or acidic. In the
contemporary wine business, that is a sure-fire formula for