From the vanilla flavor in our yogurt to the vanilla scent of the candles in our living rooms, most of the vanilla in our lives is not truly vanilla and it doesn’t come from pods grown in the tropics. Most “vanilla” is actually vanillin, a compound extracted from oak that tastes reminiscent of vanilla. (Oak contains a lot of vanillin). Wine drinkers, for example, know that chardonnay and many other wines often exhibit vanilla-like flavors. Needless to say, those wines haven’t come anywhere near vanilla beans; they have a vanilla-like flavor because they’re made and/or aged for long periods in vanillin-rich oak barrels.
January—time for austere budgets. Have you ever noticed how many inexpensive and moderately priced wines have animals on the label? Wine’s “critter era” is thought to have been born in 2001 when an Australian brand named [yellow tail] entered the U.S. market with the modest goal of selling 25,000 cases. By 2012, [yellow tail] was the single largest selling imported wine in the U.S. (Sales have slightly declined since, but last spring, a whopping 15 million bottles of [yellow tail] were sold in just the first three months of the year). Animal labels capture a craving for the uncomplicated. Today, labels around the world sport scores of animals including elephants, frogs, wild boars, bobcats, chickens, alligators, buzzards, butterflies, beavers, bees, aardvarks and eagles (screaming, of course).
So, you’ve heard the idea: the lower the yield of grapes, the higher the quality of the wine. The rationale goes like this–the fewer grapes you grow on any one acre of land, the more concentrated those grapes will be and therefore the more flavorful the wine will be. It sounds reasonable. Except it isn’t exactly true. Alas, there is no absolute linear correlation between yield and quality. In the Napa Valley, for example, fantastic cabernet sauvignons are made from vineyards that yield two tons per acre—and from vineyards that yield double that. We do know that each vine has a “balance point”—a finely-tuned level of crop at which the grapes grow optimally. But where that balance point is isn’t as simple as tons per acre.
While Colonial Americans of the eighteenth century were busy writing a Constitution and setting up the structures of a new government, they drank wine liberally as part of a healthy lifestyle. Folk medicine pamphlets of the time suggest wine and herb “wine tonics” as remedies for everything from a cold to injuries inflicted by witchcraft. One of the most influential health writers of the time, Christopher Sauer, a Pennsylvania apothecary, suggested that wine possessed “the noble capacity to warm the stomach, promote digestion, increase and improve the blood, promote circulation, strengthen the constitution and make men merry.” Sauer recommended one small glass of wine each day—before breakfast.
Of the hundreds of different sweet wines produced in Italy, the best known may be vin santo, holy wine, so named because priests have drunk it during the Mass for centuries. Vin santo is the customary finale to even the humblest Tuscan meal, served after espresso, almost always with a plate of small biscotti called cantucci, stubby, twice-baked cookies meant for dunking. Most vin santo does not taste as sweet as, say, Sauternes. The wine has a delicate, creamy, honey-roasted flavor, and the color can be unreal, from radiant amber to neon orange. True vin santo is fairly expensive because the ancient process of making it remains artisanal and labor intensive. Indeed, the grapes (generally malvasia bianca lunga or trebbiano) must be partially dried for three to six months before they are crushed and then left to ferment slowly for three to five years in small, sealed barrels in a warm attic called a vinsantaia.
The first Liebfraumilch (literally, milk of Our Blessed Lady) wines were produced around 1296 from vineyards surrounding the Liebfrauenkirche (Church of Our Blessed Lady) outside the German city of Worms. Liebfraumilch is a slightly sweetish, inexpensive wine made from a blend of mostly Müller-Thurgau, riesling, and silvaner. For decades, the largest-selling German wine in the English-speaking world, Sichel Liebfraumilch, pictured stern, matronly German nuns in brown habits against a blue sky. (Nuns symbolized the close association of the church with wine). Consumers began referring to the “nuns and blue label wine”. In the next Sichel label renditions, there were fewer and thinner nuns; then the nuns smiled. By 1958 the nuns were clothed in blue habits. Today the label of Blue Nun shows a single coquettish blonde with blue eyes wearing a pastel blue habit, holding a basket of grapes, and smiling in a way that would make the Mona Lisa envious.
We just heard from the af&co 2018 Trends Report that mescal cocktails will be one of next year’s hot items. Which got us to thinking about what people drank in the Americas before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the sixteenth century. It wasn’t an alcoholic beverage made from grapes. Instead, the indigenous peoples of Meso-America made alcoholic drinks such as pulque (the forerunner of mescal), from the maguey or agave plant; tesgüino from the sprouted kernels of maize; and balche from mead, flavored with the leaves of the Lonchocarpus, a tropical climbing shrub with colorful flowers. What makes this all the more fascinating is that numerous native grape species were to be found in the Americas, including in northern Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
In Austria schnapps is said to be made from every fruit and berry you have heard of and every fruit and berry you haven’t. Schnapps, like eau-de-vie in France and grappa in Italy, is a clear, unaged distillate (about 40 proof) that is drunk after the meal. Often Austrian families proudly make their own schnapps from fruit they grow themselves, and it’s frequently a delicious, relatively mild liqueur. In restaurants in Austria you’ll also find hundreds of handcrafted, limited-production, very expensive versions made by individual winemakers and artisanal distillers. Plum is the most common flavor, but more intriguing perhaps are schnapps made from elderberries, quince, juniper, apricots, cherries, blueberries, blackberries, and rowanberries from the mountain ash tree.
In Australia (and sometimes in South Africa), the grape syrah is known as shiraz. Why so? In the 17th century, French Huguenots (many of whom were religious refugees) brought syrah from France to South Africa, and from there it was brought to Australia. By the 1830s, Australian explorers were also bringing syrah in directly from France. In France, syrah is known by a number of colloquial names (serine, serinne, sira, etc.). Most scholars think the name shiraz is a corruption of one of these aliases. Frustratingly, many wine articles continue to reproduce the erroneous legends that syrah/shiraz somehow came from the Iranian city of Shiraz, the Greek island of Syra, or the city of Syracuse in Sicily. All false. Today, of course, shiraz is Australia’s most famous red wine, and it can be a spellbinding rich blockbuster of a wine, although rarely as gamey as syrahs from Washington State or from the northern Rhône.
As you probably know, virtually all red wine grapes have white juice. One day, I found myself wondering why? I asked Carole Meredith PhD, the leading grapevine geneticist in the U.S. She explained: “The red grapes that have white juice are all varieties of Vitis vinifera, the European wine grape. These red grapes have color pigment in the berry skin, but not in the berry pulp. As to why, one can only speculate. The skin color of the fruit presumably helps to attract birds or other fruit-eating animals, which will then disperse the seeds. There would be no adaptive advantage to also having pigment in the pulp, which is not visible. Red apple varieties, for example, have pigment in the skin but not in the pulp.” I thought: So that’s it. But Meredith went on, “Then again, look at plums – some have color inside and some don’t.” Hmmm.