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The Name Shiraz

The Second Annual International Shiraz Day was yesterday. Herewith, some information on the name shiraz. Until the 1980s, Australians often called syrah “hermitage” and occasionally “shiraz.” But because Hermitage is an official appellation in the northern Rhône Valley of France, use of that term was eventually discontinued.  As for the name shiraz, it is probably a linguistic variation on a string of different names that the French have historically used for syrah. These include schiras, sirac, syrac, serine, sereine, and scyras. But no matter what it is called, DNA typing reveals that syrah is definitely a French grape and not named for the Iranian city of Shiraz (as has sometimes been suggested). Back to the wine itself: We love top Australian shiraz; it’s simply impossible to ignore the wine’s seductive aromas, gracefully soft texture, and luscious berry and violet flavors, plus the wine’s bolts of enlivening spiciness and black pepperiness.

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The First Big Bar Tab

America’s early presidents were all avid wine drinkers—starting with the first president himself, George Washington. On September 15, 1787, to celebrate his election a few months earlier, as well as the impending signing of the Constitution two days later, Washington rounded up other “founding fathers,” plus friends, and troops to celebrate. The bill at the City Tavern in Philadelphia that night came to just over $17,300 in today’s dollars. By the end of the night, the 55 guests had consumed 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of Bordeaux, 8 bottles of whiskey, 22 bottles of porter ale, 8 bottles of hard cider, 12 jugs of beer, and 7 large bowls of punch. (The staff and musicians drank another 21 bottles and just as much punch). The bill also included reimbursements to the tavern for a serious number of broken glasses. The receipt for the night was saved in the First Troop Cavalry Archives.

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The Charm of Absinthe

Despite the lovely charm of a good rosé, we know that occasionally you may want to drink something else on a hot summer night. In that case, there is another famous, well-loved French libation—absinthe, a bitter, bold green, licorice-flavored spirit that in French cafés is usually served as an aperitif with a carafe of ice water. When the water is added to the absinthe, the drink immediately turns ominously cloudy. Absinthe’s emerald green color and herbaceously bitter flavor come from green anise, fennel, and the plant wormwood. Alas, in the early 20th century, several reports claimed that a volatile compound in wormwood, thujone, was a hallucinogen that could “destroy the nervous system.” Although absinthe brands like Pernod were wildly popular among Paris’ bohemian artists and authors at the time, absinthe was banned in France in 1915, and before that in much of the rest of Europe and the United States. For several decades, absinthe drinkers had little choice but to substitute pastis, a similar spirit made from anise, fennel, and licorice—but no wormwood. Then research in the 1980s revealed that wormwood did not contain enough thujone to be toxic or deleterious to health. By the 1990s, bans lifted, wormwood was back as a legal ingredient in absinthe which, for its part, has regained its status as a café staple. Cheers.

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Don’t Know What Chartreuse Is? You’re Not Alone.

There are only two people alive who know the identity of all 130 herbs and aromatic plants used to make Chartreuse, the world famous emerald green liqueur from east central France. They are monks of the Chartreuse Order (the Carthusians), which was founded in 1084, in the Chartreuse Mountain Range near the alpine vineyards of the Savoie. The Order received the original recipe for an “Elixir of Long Life” in 1605 as a gift in the form of a cryptic manuscript believed to have been written by a 16th century alchemist. A hundred and fifty-nine years later, the Order’s monks finally decoded the mysterious instructions and began to produce “Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse,” a medicinal tonic. The tonic’s descendant—today’s Green Chartreuse liqueur—still calls for a dizzying cornucopia of botanicals (including rosemary, green bell pepper, licorice, and lavender) to be macerated in alcohol, distilled to 55% abv (110 proof), and aged for several years in oak casks. Made at the Monastery in Voiron, it’s the only liqueur in the world with a completely natural green color. By the way, Chartreuse Day is Sunday, May 16.

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Fantastic Tan-Plastic!

Tannin in wine provides two things: structure and ageability. Found in the grape’s skins, seeds, and stems, tannin is a natural preservative. Red wines, with considerably more tannin than white, can thus age longer. Tannins belong to a class of complex compounds called phenols, powerful antioxidants believed to give red wine its reported health benefits. Some scientists believe that antioxidants offer a way to also slow fresh food spoilage by reacting with chemicals that cause oxidation. Paul Kilmartin, a professor of wine chemistry at New Zealand’s University of Auckland, discovered that plastics impregnated with discarded grape solids during the manufacturing process retained the tannin’s antioxidant benefits. Testing their effect on packaging for various edible oils, Kilmartin was able to extend the oil’s shelf life up to 30%.

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As If You Needed One More Reason to Love Wine

Asphalt is ubiquitous in our modern mobile lives, covering roads, parking lots and airport runways. So too, is the pernicious pothole. (Stay with me here; the wine part is coming). A mixture of liquid petroleum byproduct, stones and soil, asphalt undergoes a process of oxidation over time, becoming stiffer and prone to cracking and collapse.

In an effort to address this issue, Chilean engineers at the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Santiago, researched the high antioxidant qualities of the polyphenols in grape skins and discovered that grape skins could, when added to the mix, extend the life of pavements. In fact, they have been able to reduce the fatigue and cracking of asphalt pavement by 14% with the addition of dehydrated and powdered grape marc. (Marc is the mass of solids remaining after the juice is pressed from grapes for wine production). After experimenting with different grape varieties, they concluded that cabernet sauvignon grapes performed best, likely due to the higher content of polyphenols in their thick skins.

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Wine Leather

A “Must”-Have for Eco-Conscious Collectors

Imagine the opportunity to own two uber-luxury products in one—a Louis Vuitton handbag made using leather dyed in Hennessy Cognac. What if the handbag used leather made of Hennessy Cognac? No longer a flight of fancy, “Wine Leather,” invented by Vegea, an Italian biomaterials company, is a fabric produced with the must (grape seeds and skins) leftover from wine production. The material is 100% vegan, sustainable, and can be recycled. The Vegea team debuted its prototypes made into dresses, handbags and shoes. It will soon be available for the furniture and auto industry—Bently announced it has chosen wine leather for the interiors of their new car model. Every year, 26 billion liters (7 billion gallons) of wine are produced worldwide, creating 6.5 billion kilos (14.3 billion pounds) of grape must. “We can potentially produce 2.6 billion square meters (28 billion sq ft) of VEGEA fabric every year,” he says. Unlike with animal-based leather, no toxic solvents or heavy metals are needed in the production process.

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An Iron-ic Pairing

Any true Anthony Hopkins fan can recite the immortal line spoken by one of his most iconic and monstrous characters, Hannibal Lecter, in the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs:

“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”

I recall thinking at the time: “Chianti’s not what I would have chosen,” and it turns out that in the book, author Thomas Harris (who must be an oenophile) actually had Lecter enjoy an Amarone—incidentally, a much better pairing with liver. The film’s producers felt that movie audiences wouldn’t know what amarone was and changed the referenced wine to one they believed everyone would be more familiar with.

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Environmental Pioneers

After decades spent witnessing harvests starting earlier and earlier, Champagne became the first wine-growing region in the world to carry out a carbon footprint assessment of their industry in 2003. (Harvests now begin on average 18 days sooner than 30 years ago). At that time, the region initiated an ambitious climate plan aimed at cutting emissions by 75% by 2050. Among the most significant initiatives: reducing bottle weight (packaging accounts for 1/3 of Champagne production’s carbon emissions), waste recycling (100% of winemaking byproducts such as grape pomace and lees, are now used by the cosmetics, healthcare, and agro-food sectors), and biomass conversion (80% of the 120k tons of annually-generated vine shoots, branches, and other prunings are now ground into the soil as natural fertilizer). From its efforts to date, Champagne has been able to cut C02 emissions generated by each bottle of wine by 20% over the last 15 years.

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Research—The Highest Calling

Oakville is the only wine growing region in the United States to have a dedicated research vineyard and facility in the heart of the AVA. For over 50 years the University of California, Davis Research Station in Oakville has conducted studies including trials of clones, rootstocks, vine spacing, pruning levels, and irrigation. The original budwood for Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon came from the Oakville Station, and many of the modern trellising techniques utilized in Napa Valley were devised there as well. The Station, on some of the most expensive wine real estate in the world, is comprised of two vineyard parcels equaling a total of 40 acres. From 1868 to 1879, pioneer viticulturalist Hiram Crabb, purchased the acreage he would eventually plant with vineyards and christen To Kalon, Greek for “highest beauty.” On a 20-acre section (ultimately known as the Old Federal Vineyard) at the heart of the vineyard, Crabb experimented with rootstock and almost 400 different grape varieties. After Crabb’s death in 1899, much of To Kalon was sold to the Churchill family, who set aside the Old Federal Vineyard for use by first the U.S. Department of Viticulture and then the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1947, wanting to secure a research vineyard for the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, a group of Napa vintners purchased and donated a parcel now called the South Station, located south of Crabb’s original experimental plot. By 1955, closing out its own grape research, the USDA did the same and ceded the Old Federal Vineyard to the University.

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Viva Les Veuves!

The history of Champagne is liberally sprinkled with the success of larger-than-life women, many of them widows. Unlike many women in the early 19th century, widows (veuve, in French) enjoyed the independence necessary to run a business. While unmarried women were dependent on their fathers or brothers and married women were forced to rely on their husband’s money, widows were allowed to own property and businesses and control their own finances. In fact, the Champagne Widows were so successful that some champagne houses without their own widow added “Veuve” to their labels anyway! Some of the most famous widows and their iconic Champagne houses include:

Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot – Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin

Louise Pommery – Pommery

Mathilde Emilie Laurent-Perrier – Laurent-Perrier

Elisabeth “Lily” Law de Lauriston-Boubers Bollinger – Bollinger

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Fermenting Inside Out

In honor of Beaujolais Nouveau being released next Thursday, November 21st, here are a few words of explanation about carbonic maceration. Carbonic maceration is a type of fermentation in which bunches of uncrushed grapes are placed whole inside a closed tank. The weight of the bunches on top crushes those on the bottom, releasing juice that ferments in the standard manner. For the intact bunches on top, however, fermentation takes place inside each grape, also known as intracellular fermentation, leading to an extremely juicy style of wine. Carbonic maceration is used extensively in Beaujolais, where it heightens the wine’s already grapey flavor.