Monday, March 4, 2013

When gross equals great

Anyone who's ever had a hangover knows that what's great can turn into something gross. But when it comes to wine, what's gross can also turn into something great. That's because the process of making wine can be straight up disgusting.

(heh. this rock looked like a butt)

Let's set aside the fact that until very recently, all wines originally started out as grapes that people stepped on with their bare feet. Let's ignore the unfortunate truth that wine sits out in open vats and we call it "ageing" with an extra "e" that hopefully does not stand for "e. coli." Let's just move on from the whole issue of all the shit that's done to Chardonnay these days. There's still much to discuss.

Wine is primal and natural and timeless. It's delicate, with personality that changes over the years. It breathes. It's alive, and therefore, it's a little nasty. For everyone who talks about how brave the first guy was to eat an oyster, let's just stop for a second and think about the first guy to drink rotten, foot-grape liquid and contemplate its nose and finish. But thank goodness he did (normally I'd say he or she, but when have you ever seen anyone but a dude accept a challenge of "I'll give you a dollar if you drink that whole thing").

Occasionally, a fungus affects wine, causing it to smell mildew-y. This is known as "corked." But while corking is unfortunate, its rarer than the gross things we do to wine to actually make it taste better.

Take Botrytis Cinerea, for example. Yeah, that's not cute. But it's grapes affected with this business, known as "noble rot," that give us the finest Sauternes, a glorious dessert wine from France. In Germany, grapes are monitored for a specific kind of freezing. When this happens, usually at around 3 in the morning, the entire family is woken up to pick the partially frozen grapes to make what is known as "eiswein." Frozen grapes isn't disgusting; waking up at 3 to work in the fields is downright repulsive. But this style is so beloved that other countries try to mimic it by partially freezing their grapes.

Soil is soil which means it's dirt, so you can't really get too upset about it. Especially when you learn that the noted terroir of the Paris Basin, famous for its Kimmeridgean soil (also found at the Cliffs of Dover), is special because it contains THE FOSSILS OF SEA CREATURES FROM THE JURASSIC PERIOD AKA DINOSAUR BONES SORT OF. This includes Champagne, Alsace, and part of the Loire Valley. The good part. Have fun drinking dinosaur bones. No, really, have fun with that. I enjoy making some noises, maybe putting on a triceratops mask if I'm feeling frisky.

(but most days I'm just a snake)

And if you thought noble rot was the end of it sexy scum, you were wrong. "Flor" as it's known in Spain, is what separates "fino" sherry from the rest. That's right, a naturally forming, unplanned, mucky yellow yeast developing atop the ageing wine is what determines the good stuff. Wikipedia is shocked to note that some wine makers used to think these wines were sick, as if this were a bad thing! Yeah, cause when I see pus-colored film on my supposedly edible livelihood, I'm psyched.

Yeast has long been a part of the process, though. It's how wine gets its alcohol. Yeast plus sugar equals carbon dioxide plus alcohol. Once we've got our booze, one would hope we'd be done. Especially if the yeast is dead. But, and if you read last week's article on sparkling wines, you know this is not the case. "Lees ageing" is the process by which the wine sits on the dead yeast cells to give it a toasty, biscuity flavor.

Wine is a weird science. Maybe even the original molecular gastronomy. Jk that's probably fire. But when we drink a glass of wine, we're also drinking years of thoughtful experimentation, bold exploration, and brave taste. We're drinking history and culture and risk taking and commerce and maybe even a little residual yeast. Remember that next time you're complaining about wine costing more than 2 dollars a bottle.

But maybe try to forget it during your next hangover.

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