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The Sensuality of Wine

By Rebeccah Marsters

Type “wine and…” into your browser search bar and what does the all-knowing Internet come up with to fill the blank? Wine and food, wine and roses, wine and chocolate, and, yes, wine and sex. Wine and romance seem to go hand in hand, but is there something inherently amorous about fermented grape juice? Anyone who has enjoyed a glass of truly amazing wine can attest that the experience transcends the taste buds and indeed enters the realm of the sensual, but why? If the romantic connotation of wine is just hype, then kudos to the companies out there who are exploiting and profiting from it, but upon further exploration, it seems that the sensual aspects of wine- from the scientific and physical, to the cultural and historical- may in fact be inherent in the drink itself.

Beginning on the surface, wine as an idea is sensual. Every clichéd romantic scenario involves it in some way, whether opening a bottle in front of a roaring fire, or sipping it in a dimly-lit restaurant. One reason for this is that wine is an economic signifier and expensive things are seen as romantic or alluring. In a culture where being ‘wined and dined’ is basically synonymous with having money thrown at you in the hopes of impressing, pricey foods and beverages are right up there with jewelry and roses in the toolbox of the modern-day Casanova. In ancient Egypt, priests and royalty enjoyed wine while the workers drank beer, and although nowadays the price discrepancy between the two beverages can be minimal, wine will always be seen as the classier, more posh choice, especially when looking to impress a mate. Even those who don’t swoon at displays of financial bravado can agree that a can of Bud by candlelight wouldn’t quite do the trick.

Another reason that wine finds itself as the spokesbeverage for those with prurient interests is that it’s conducive to sharing.  One bottle, two glasses- the perfect amount for two, unless your date’s a lightweight, of course. No other beverage lends itself to this situation in the same way; beer usually comes in individual containers, and while you could each get your own cocktail, trying to share a bottle of vodka is not an advisable way to spend an evening. There’s also mystery involved in sharing wine. The process of uncorking the bottle, pouring the first few sips, not knowing what you’re going to taste- it’s like undressing, and the element of the unknown makes it all the more titillating.

Beyond the concept of wine being sensual, the experience of wine itself is quite literally of the senses. There are few things that we experience with every one of our senses, food and sex being the most obvious, but wine exceeds both in this category. With wine, there can be new and different perceptions with each bottle, and even each sip within that bottle. Wine is always evolving- as it ages, from vintage to vintage, as the weather changes- and there is therefore no limit to the amount or height of sensation that the next glass might provide. The sound of a bottle being uncorked is universally recognized, and whether the ecstatic pop of champagne, or the gentle squeak as the worm of the corkscrew enters a delicate cork, it usually means good things are to come. Visually, wine is sensual. Starting with the shape of the bottle, its curves and bulges that please the eye and invite touch, and then of course the colors inside the bottle. Pale gold, translucent ruby red, deep burgundy, watery rims, inky cores; wine not only invites us to admire it for beauty sake, but because the appearance reveals so much about what we’re soon to taste. Touch occurs in two locales: our hands touch the bottle, the cork, the glass as we swirl; the wine touches our tongue and body is detected here- creamy, viscous, almost oily, or thin, light, and fleeting. Again, to better understand the wine, this touch is necessary, and some even swish it in their mouths and hold it on their tongue, maximizing both surface area and duration of touch. At every step of this process, we are sensing the smells of the wine: the first whiff that comes up from the bottle upon uncorking, followed by the aromas that reveal themselves as the wine opens up in the glass. Usually these are food-related scents (fruits, vanilla, berries, chocolate), but there are also often musk, dirt, funk, and leather- smells of the body and of the earth. Taste is the sense most clearly linked to wine, and while it’s arguably the reason for drinking it in the first place, the above proves that wine can be a sensual experience long before it hits your lips.

Looking at wine reviews and descriptions, it is clear that those who are passionate about it really do experience it on a level akin to bodily, sexual pleasure. Adjectives such as seductive, supple, luscious, juicy, and racy might seem more appropriate for the bedroom, and these are just a few of the creative and abundant descriptors that have been applied to wine. But the connection between wine and the bedroom in the practical sense goes far beyond this. It’s no mystery where some of the aforementioned romantic evenings are headed, and wine has a role to play in this scenario as well. As with all alcohol, wine lowers inhibitions and increases confidence, two factors that encourage us to act on our physical attractions- and I haven’t even taken ‘beer goggles’ into account here. There are multiple reasons why alcohol can lead to sex, and with the exception of being so inebriated that we make poor decisions, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Simply put, wine is an intoxicant, and one definition for ‘intoxicate’ is to excite or elate to the point of enthusiasm or frenzy, language that readily lends itself to copulation- coincidence? The CEO of Taittinger Champagne said at a press conference that Champagne’s main competitor wasn’t cheap California sparkling wine, but Viagra. While this was clearly said in jest, the parallel between the two products speaks to the aphrodisiacal effects of each.

Using history to clarify this equation further, we turn to the ancient Persian fable of wine’s discovery. The myth involves a princess trying to end her life, but after gulping what she thought was poison, she finds herself not only still very much alive, but with a feeling of ease, no longer plagued by the anxieties that had troubled her before. The ‘poison’, of course, turned out to be wine, and I’ll wager a guess that this wasn’t the last time she partook of it. Nowadays, we know that wine relaxes us, and this may be another way in which it primes us for romance. Science has proven that when we’re stressed- as most of us are on a daily basis- our bodies are too busy producing stress hormones such as cortisol for our sex hormones to be fully pumping. It stands to reason that the relaxing effect that wine takes on the body and mind not only helps us unwind after a long day, but can also put us ‘in the mood’.

One can’t help but wonder, however, if there’s more to the wine-sex link than a mere lowering of inhibitions or relaxed state of mind causing us to jump in the sack. According to The Journal of Sexual Medicine, a study done by a group of doctors in Italy has concluded that red wine increases women’s sexual desire. The Telegraph reported these findings from Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence, and apparently it has to do with the antioxidants in wine and their effect on the lining of blood vessels, which increases blood flow to key areas of the body. The article doesn’t go into great detail, and doesn’t explain why the increased desire is only experienced in females, but it’ll be interesting to see what, and if anything, develops from these experiments. If nothing else, I’d love to know more about how these Italian doctors went about conducting their research…

Despite all the inherently sensual qualities of wine, there are people out there who have taken it to the next level. We all know that sex sells, and it effectively sells everything from toothpaste to hamburgers (thank you Paris Hilton), so why not wine? Subtlety is clearly not the goal at Naked Winery and Orgasmic Wine Company, where one can only assume that bottles such as ‘Blazing Straddle Rosé’, ‘Foreplay Chardonnay’, and ‘Dominatrix Pinot Noir’ are not vying for points from Wine Spectator. California’s Erotic Cellars takes it one step further, with wines like ‘The Strip’ and ‘Barrel 69’ not even offering a clue as to what grapes are in the bottle- although one look at the label suggests who the target audience might be.

Unfortunately, these companies are missing the point; wine is sexy, and those who have to plaster a pole dancer across their bottle to feel that way might be better off with Viagra. The allure of wine isn’t overt and this is what makes it sensual. Whether it’s the chemical effects on the body, or purely a construct of the mind, it works. So take the opportunity to open a special bottle of wine with another person, and let the evening unfold as it may. In the words of Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, “we will always have time to make love and drink Champagne”.

After receiving her degree in Art History from the University of Vermont, Rebeccah Marsters decided to go to culinary school where she completed an associate’s degree in Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales in North Carolina.  After, she began an internship at America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) in Brookline, MA and was later hired full-time at ATK and now work as Assistant Test Cook for Cook’s Country magazine where I develop and test recipes and produce the food for the magazine’s photo shoots.


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Fume Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc?

It’s one of the oldest stories in the book: the underdog gets a makeover, popularity ensues, and in the end, all is right with the world. Clichéd as it may seem, this scenario is as common in real life as it is in formulaic teen movies, and the protagonist of one such real-life instance is called ‘little wild one’, but you may know her as Sauvignon Blanc. Long revered in France, the Sauvignon Blanc grape thrives in the renowned regions of the Loire Valley in central France, and Bordeaux in the southwest. This white grape of the species vitis vinifera has naturally high levels of acid, and contains a compound called pyrazine, which contributes vegetal, ‘green’ aromas to the wines. Some find these aromas extremely off-putting, and when the grapes are under ripe, they can indeed be reminiscent of canned peas, asparagus, green bell pepper, and even cat urine or ‘litter box’. At its best, however, Sauvignon Blanc wines can offer a spectrum of fruit aromas, both tart and ripe: lemongrass, gooseberry, melon, grapefruit, lime, nettle, acacia, and hawthorn are some of most commonly recognized characteristics, and while there is often a grassy quality, it can be integrated into the wine in a harmonious way. No matter where it’s made, Sauvignon Blanc is almost always meant to be drunk young, ideally within two to five years of the vintage.

Perhaps better known for its reds, the Bordeaux region produces a high volume of white wines as well. The primary white grape of the region is Sauvignon Blanc, but the majority of wines are blends in which Semillon, and to a lesser degree, Muscadelle are used to soften and fatten the lean, racy grape. Most of these blends hail from the sub-regions of Graves and Entre-deux-Mers, where the gravel soils, and the limestone plateau of the latter, lend minerality, and generations of experience with the Sauvignon Blanc grape mean that careful viticultural practices are the norm.

The same is true in the Loire Valley, where Sauvignon Blanc grapes are more often featured in unblended iterations. The regions of Pouilly Fumé and Sancerre provide two example of what can be achieved when this grape is coaxed into greatness but not overly manipulated. The beauty of these wines has to do with the grape’s fresh, tart profile, its tight, lean fruit aromas with underlying greenness, and the incredible mineral qualities contributed by the chalky Kimmeridgian marl and Portlandian limestone on which the grapes are cultivated. Ideally, the winemaker’s impact is minimal. Fermenting in oak is not an unheard of practice in Pouilly Fumé, and some malolactic fermentation may be allowed to take place, but masking the wine’s inherent qualities with wood is never the goal, and fermenting in stainless steel is the way of the majority. Another noted trait of Loire Valley Sauvignon Blancs is the smoky, flinty aroma that can pervade them. This is most likely due to the particularities of the soil on which they are grown, and to residues of iron present in them, but it’s this smokiness that is the root of the very name Pouilly Fumé (fumé means smoke in French), and it was also the inspiration behind the marketing scheme of one particular California vintner.

Despite an illustrious past in France, it wasn’t until the 1880s that someone decided the Sauvignon Blanc grape might be due for a transplant. In the movie scenario, this would be the part where the parents thoughtlessly uproot their teenage children from the home town they know and love, dragging them to a whole new place where they just don’t fit in. Playing the part of the clueless but well-meaning parent was Charles Wetmore of Cresta Blanca Winery, and while the endeavor was well thought out on the front end (some of the cuttings he brought were from the highly esteemed Château d’Yquem in Sauternes), the émigrés simply didn’t take well to their new surroundings. California winemakers had no experience with Sauvignon Blanc, and with no one to clue them in to the eccentricities of the grape and the vine, in most cases it was grossly mistreated. Despite marginal success in areas such as the Livermore Valley, American examples of Sauvignon Blanc from the nineteenth and early twentieth century were off-dry at best, and, more commonly, sappy sweet. ‘California Sauterne’ was slapped on some of the labels, and it seemed doubtful that this French deportee would ever be embraced by American wine drinkers- at least ones with discerning taste.

After prohibition had taken its toll, Sauvignon Blanc underwent a resurgence of sorts in the 70s and 80s. Unfortunately, California growers still hadn’t wised up to the needs of this fickle vine. In addition to being fairly susceptible to black rot and powdery mildew, Sauvignon Blanc vines are quite vigorous, and the leaf canopy must be trimmed back in order to direct energy to ripening the fruit. Vines allowed to grow unchecked will produce neutral wines, and fruit that is not fully ripe will display aggressively vegetal aromas, even erring towards the previously mentioned litter box phenomenon. When winemaker Robert Mondavi was offered a particularly good crop of Sauvignon Blanc by a grower, he decided to take a stab at reversing the fate of the unfortunate misfit, and with a brilliant marketing scheme, and plenty of oak barrels, he did just that.

This is the turnaround point in the story; the part where the previously misunderstood and underappreciated protagonist takes off her glasses, lets down her hair, and throws on a low cut shirt. In the Mondavi story, however, there was less stripping down and more covering up. Oak treatment of white wines in the US, while not as prevalent as it is today, was a fairly common practice. Usually reserved for the more neutral, full-bodied backdrop of a Chardonnay, the ability of oak to take over the profile of a wine was not lost on Mondavi. If a strong, vegetal character was the hurdle, then the solution would have to be something even more powerful: wood. By barrel ageing the otherwise unexceptional wine, Mondavi not only covered up its less palatable attributes, but gave it a character all its own. This sensory turnaround was only part of the makeover, however. Everyone knows that a good product is only worth something if you know how to sell it- popularity has as much to do with reputation as with anything- and attaching an intriguing name to his new creation seemed as good a tactic as any. Alluding to the French Pouilly Fumé, as well as to the smoky, toasty character the wood imparted to the wine, Fumé Blanc was born.

Debuted in 1968, this new style of Sauvignon Blanc with its chic moniker was divorced from all previous American Sauvignon Blancs in the minds, and on the palates, of its new fans. There were potential suitors lining up at the door of this hot little number, so to speak, and fellow California vintners were quick to follow Mondavi’s lead. Since there was no copyright on the term, Fumé Blanc began to adorn the labels of a bevy of wines. Many were oaked, but some saw no wood at all; most were dry, but sweet versions could be found under the same alias. For all the good that Fumé Blanc did in terms of resurrecting a flailing grape varietal, there was really no improvement to the overall consistency and quality control of Sauvignon Blanc wines. With no legal designation attached to it, the vaguely French sounding name was no more than a façade, akin to a smear of lipstick, a dye job, and new wardrobe- but it was brilliant nonetheless.

The comforting thing about the stereotypical teen movie is that we can rely on it for a happy ending. After the shine of popularity has worn off, the budding protagonist learns that it’s what’s inside that counts, and that that’s where her value truly lies. The sexy dress is cast aside, and she’s finally accepted for who she really is. But can Sauvignon Blanc hope for a similarly serendipitous fate? Things are looking good. In the 1990s, there was a growing interest in seeing Sauvignon Blanc ‘unmasked’. Largely thanks to the fresh, clean, varietally-driven examples that began to come out of New Zealand, American wine makers and drinkers alike started to see the merits of well made, minimally manipulated Sauvignon Blanc. With a new understanding of proper pruning and viticultural practices, favorable soil and climactic factors, and an eager and adventurous new generation of wine drinkers, it was an auspicious time for the grape, and- just as in the cinematic parallel- people really did start to appreciate her true self.

Sauvignon Blanc is the leading white wine of New Zealand today, but there are also unoaked styles coming from South Africa, Spain (particularly Rueda), Italy, Chile, and, of course, the US. Fumé Blanc is still around, but now it is simply a synonym for wine made with the Sauvignon Blanc grape, and there are both oaked and unoaked versions out there. Whether the label says Sauvignon Blanc or Fumé Blanc, there has been a trend away from the overly wooded style that once dominated. Even the benchmark wine from Mondavi is veering towards a European approach, and while he still uses barrel ageing, the wine is fermented in a majority of French oak, with stainless steel making up the balance, and there is Semillon blended in as well. Despite the happy ending, this story may not be quite worthy of the big screen, but for those of us with a vested interest in the world of wine, both past and future, it’s certainly an uplifting tale.

After receiving her degree in Art History from the University of Vermont, Rebeccah Marsters decided to go to culinary school where she completed an associate’s degree in Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales in North Carolina.  After, she began an internship at America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) in Brookline, MA and was later hired full-time at ATK and now work as Assistant Test Cook for Cook’s Country magazine where I develop and test recipes and produce the food for the magazine’s photo shoots.

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Food Pairing: It’s not just for wine anymore

By Rebeccah Marsters

Whether James Bond’s martini, Carrie Bradshaw’s cosmo, a mint julep at the Kentucky Derby, or a snifter of brandy by the fire, spirits in our culture have come to signify far more than the sum of their parts, and it was only a matter of time before they started moving into the culinary arena. In the past, spirits – both mixed and straight-up – have traditionally filled the niche of pre-dinner libations; whether at home or out on the town, spirits effectively enable us to pass the time until your table or meal is ready. Wine and beer often accompany the food itself, but the stronger stuff is generally relegated to the roles of apéritif or digestif. Luckily, trends are changing the perception of spirits’ ability to pair effectively with food.

Up until now, perhaps the only situation in which we are accustomed to mixing liquor and food is the cocktail party, where drinks are accompanied by hors d’oeuvres and other small bites. The higher alcohol content of mixed drinks is the perfect foil to the typically rich and salty foods passed around at these soirees and this may well have been the seed for the concept of food and spirits pairing that is growing steadily today.

While both spirits and food have been parts of our daily lives for ages, there exist no real examples of thoughtful, intentional pairings of the two. Whatever the reason for this, the trends arising in restaurants and bars today have created a favorable environment for this concept to take off. Blame it on the ADHD generation, but the direction of food has been away from the idea of one big plate containing the triumvirate of meat-veg-starch for dinner. Rather, it has transitioned towards a dining experience where guests can taste many things; whether tapas, mezze, sliders, or amuse bouche, food is getting smaller and more varied. This more informal ‘small plates’ style of eating is comparable to the aforementioned hors d’oeuvres and thus similarly conducive to less-traditional beverage pairing.

In the beverage arena, the overwhelming trend is looking to the past. There has been a renaissance of classic cocktails, from “the Sidecar” to “the Aviation”, and terms like pre-prohibition and artisan liquor are being thrown around like yesterday’s cosmopolitan and appletini. American palates are becoming more sophisticated and adventurous, with less demand for the fruity, sweet, pastel sippers that were sucked down so voraciously in the past. Not only are cocktails growing less sweet, but some are even savory, and there has been an influx of food-related ingredients being used. From muddling fresh herbs and garnishing with cheese-stuffed olives, to the more-adventurous use of bacon and hot peppers, almost nothing is off limits. These savory drinks are a natural match for food, evidenced by the fact that several actually have food in them. Some restaurants have jumped at this opportunity, hiring what’s known as ‘bar chefs’, and even constructing their own tasting menus with cocktail pairings. Whatever the impetus was, recognition of this novel concept is setting in, as ‘culinary cocktails’ are amongst the hottest restaurant menu trends.

Despite this promising forecast, there are inherent challenges in pairing food and spirits. In discussing these, it is helpful to use wine pairing as a comparison, as most of us are somewhat familiar with the principles behind it. Super-sweet wines are rarely paired with food because there is disconnect with the predominantly savory flavors found in most meals. Sugary cocktails present the same problem, and although we are seeing bartenders dial down the sweetness, this must be kept carefully in check to make a good food pairing. Another potential issue is the high alcohol content of spirits. Too much alcohol can burn the taste buds, rendering the palate numb to the food that follows. Thoughtful blending of spirits with other ingredients is the key to ensuring a cocktail is balanced. A third issue concerns the temperature at which different beverages are served. Most cocktails are meant to be drunk ice cold, whether frozen, on the rocks, or shaken over ice, and not only does this extreme temperature further debilitate the taste buds, but there’s little chance of the beverage staying at the intended temperature throughout the meal. Wine can be swirled, sipped, kept at room temperature, or kept in an ice bucket and poured little by little, but a cocktail will either be slowly watered down by melting ice, or  flaccid on the palate due to warming up.

Given the possibility of disaster, why would one bother with such pairings when wine is a less risky crowd-pleaser? Despite the challenges, there are certain qualities that can make pairing food with spirits quite propitious. The elevated alcohol content of spirits, while potentially dangerous for the palate, actually works symbiotically with food. Whereas wine can coat the mouth, spirits seem to absorb the fat in food, effectively washing the palate. In return, the richness in the food softens the taste of the alcohol. This give and take keeps us coming back for more. Another undeniable advantage is that with wine, ideal food pairings may be found, but with cocktails, they can be made. Wine pairing is something of a gamble because if it turns out that a match is not harmonious, only the food can be altered – wine is a constant factor. It may not have enough acid to stand up to a dish, or too much tannin for another, but little can be done to remedy this. A cocktail, on the other hand, is a recipe which, if unharmonious, can be altered. Not enough acid? Add a squeeze more citrus. Too dry? Up the vermouth ratio. In this way, the beverage is fully customizable to the food’s requirements.

While food pairing should be fun, a few guidelines are helpful when attempting it. Perhaps the most indispensable principle is to consider what wine would pair well with the food, and go from there. Think about the acid level, mouth feel, predominant fruit flavors, body, and sweetness of an appropriate wine, and extrapolate those qualities to a cocktail. As with wine, the two main routes you can follow when thinking about food and drink are to match flavors or to contrast them. Sometimes rich, salty foods need something sweet and fruity to temper them, but often an intense, tannic or bitter option can be equally successful.

Another approach is to think about food and alcohol pairings that are already familiar. We’ve all eaten food with spirits before, even of we don’t realize it – maybe it started with the olive in a martini, a stick of celery in a bloody Mary, or the cherry in a Manhattan, but it goes beyond mere garnishes as well. In cooking, spirits have been used to complement the flavors of food for decades, and components that play well together on the plate also play well when one is in a glass. Take penne alla vodka, and think about how a clean, fresh, vodka-based cocktail would pair with a creamy, tomato-based pasta dish. Or consider steak au poivre with cognac sauce, and instead pair that steak with a smoky, heady, brandy-based drink. Some other combinations that come to mind are pork chops with calvados, tequila shrimp, rum-raisin ice cream, or venison with juniper – a central component of gin.

Finally, another effective method of pairing is to think regional, matching the origin of the spirit with that of the cuisine. Tequila makes a natural partner for Mexican foods like chorizo and ceviche. Campari plays well with Italian- think prosciutto and melon- and vodka could have no better mate than blini and caviar. There is a reason these pairings are somewhat stereotypical: they work!

Despite this basic information, there are truly no rules to pairing spirits. It’s not hindered in tradition, thus many things haven’t been tried, and what seems like an unlikely success may work beautifully. One bar chef claims that scotches from Islay and sushi are a match made in heaven, as the peatiness goes beautifully with the oils in the fish.  Heck, if this can work, just imagine what else might? Spirits pairing is still flying under the radar for the most part, but it may be time for cocktails to bridge the gap into the dinner hour. The wine bottle will always have a place at the table, but given the current trends in both the food and liquor industries, it may have to share elbowroom with martini glasses pretty soon.

After receiving her degree in Art History from the University of Vermont, Rebeccah Marsters decided to go to culinary school where she completed an associate’s degree in Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales in North Carolina.  After, she began an internship at America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) in Brookline, MA and was later hired full-time at ATK and now work as Assistant Test Cook for Cook’s Country magazine where I develop and test recipes and produce the food for the magazine’s photo shoots.

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Uncorking Cork

By Rebeccah Marsters

With the abundance of information on wine labels these days, it’s a testament to the time-honored tradition of opening a bottle that we find no instructions for uncorking. Imagine the classic scenario: lights are low, the music plays, you use an elegant silver corkscrew to ease open a bottle of wine. The gentle ‘thwup’ meets your ears, and two glasses are at the ready. The truth is, once the cork is dislodged, it’s typically forgotten as we move on to more important things- namely, experiencing the wine. But take a minute to examine and appreciate that diminutive brown cylinder before you cast it aside and begin to pour; chances are that without its presence, wine would not exist as we know it today.

An inspection of the cork makes apparent that it’s a natural product- the irregular composition and color are your first clues, and a sniff reveals a scent not of factories and polymers, but of something organic and of the earth. Indeed, cork is the bark of the Quercus suber tree, or the cork oak. Indigenous to the hot, arid climates of Spain, North Africa, and Portugal, the latter of the three today accounts for about half of cork production worldwide, and the cork industry in that country is so vital to the economy that it has been under strict regulation for centuries. Recognizing what an important resource it was, the European Cork Industry Federation has even developed a code of practice for its production.

Why so much hoopla over something that quite literally ‘grows on trees’? The harvesting of cork is a complex process. A cork oak does not produce usable cork until about 25 years of age and then can only be harvested once every nine years. This resting period in between harvest allows for the outer layer of ‘bark’ to regenerate and this is only one of the many complexities involved in the process.

Harvesting cork is both labor intensive and time consuming, requiring skilled workers to carefully strip the trees and stack the planks of cork outside where they will cure in the sun, rain, and fresh air for up to six months. The cork panels are then cleaned, usually in a process involving a boiling water bath, fungicide, and scraping, after which they are deposited in a cellar to dry before they are finally deemed adequate for their intended use. In the case of wine stoppers, which account for about two-thirds of the cork industry, the planks are cut to a thickness equal to the desired length of the cork and perfect cylinders are punched out.

So how did this little piece of Portuguese tree bark find its way into your bottle of chardonnay? The use of cork as a plug dates back to ancient Egypt and Greece, and excavations have discovered amphorae with cork stoppers still intact at such illustrious sites as Pompeii and Athens. Despite these auspicious beginnings, wine was not a bottle-based industry for centuries; instead, transactions involved a merchant drawing wine from a barrel into receptacles provided by the buyer. Jumping ahead to the 1600s, we come upon the cellar master of Hautvillers Abbey in France- a gentleman known as Dom Pérignon- who was vexed when his champagne bottles kept popping open. The wooden stoppers wrapped in oil-soaked rags that were common at the time could not stand up to the increased pressure of the effervescence in his precious bubbly, and his decision to replace these crude closures with cylinders of cork was more consequential than he would ever know. The 1700s saw mass production of glass bottles, meaning that with a uniform neck and opening, utilizing a similarly uniform product to seal the bottle was only logical. In 1750 the first cork stopper factory opened in Spain, and for the first time in history, aging wine in the bottle became a realistic endeavor. With a cork in place, a small amount of gas exchange occurs, but the wine is fully protected, and can develop and mature for decades.

Given the labor required to produce corks and the fact that they have been in use for thousands of years, it’s surprising that no one has come up with a ‘better way’. However, the qualities that make cork such an effective stopper are inherent in the material itself, thus no amount of development or modernization can best it. Cork is light, impermeable, chemically inert, and resistant to wear, rot, fire, and temperature extremes. Its compressibility (a cork can be squeezed to half its width) combined with its ‘elastic memory’ means that it exerts even pressure against the inside of the bottle neck, and can compensate for tiny imperfections in the surface of the glass which might otherwise allow unwanted transfer with the exterior environment.

Going back to our scenario in the opening paragraph, lets imagine you’ve opened your wine, tipped the juice into your glasses, and lowered your nose to the bowl to inhale a deep whiff of…wet dog. Some alternatively describe it as moldy newspaper or damp basement, but it’s universally accepted that whatever the sensory manifestation, the smell of cork taint is unpleasant. We’ve all heard someone refer to a bottle of wine as ‘corked’, and the technical explanation of this has to do with a fungus-produced compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA, that grows in cork fibers and is transferred into the wine. The compound enters the cork either through environmental pollution or as a result of chemicals used in the sterilization process, and these are what cause the TCA. Despite efforts from both US importers and Portuguese producers to control the condition, between three and seven percent of all bottles with natural corks are affected. This has led many wineries to go the route of alternative closures- either the synthetic cork or screwcaps. While both cheaper and easier to produce than natural corks, there is a considerable populace who staunchly opposes their use.

Let’s return once more to our scenario and consider for a moment replacing the charmingly antiquated act of uncorking a bottle of wine with that of simply unscrewing a cap. In the wine world, the cork represents so much more than utility; it is a part of the romance and appeal of wine as both a beverage and an historical entity, and many people are not willing to forgo that. Screwcaps also have a structural impact on wine, as they don’t provide the oxygen exchange allowed by real cork. This is perfectly suitable for the 70 percent of wine that’s consumed within three days of purchase; however wines meant to develop in the bottle require the real thing. Not only has cork proven its worth for hundreds of years, but it’s the most environmentally sound choice as well. The trees and forests from where cork originates are home to endemic wildlife and provide a livelihood for farmers and their families. Taking into account that wine is an industry and should consider functionality above all, it’s nonetheless hard to ignore these factors.

There will always be new trends and innovations in every sector of the beverage industry, but with such an auspicious timeline up until now, there’s little danger of any of these passing fancies supplanting natural cork as the wine closure of choice. Few natural products are as aptly suited for their use as cork. Whether for the science of oxidative versus reductive maturation, or the flourish of wielding a corkscrew and deftly opening a bottle, there is no lack of justification for keeping the cork firmly in place, so to speak. Whatever happens in the future, the cork has played an undeniably vital role in making wine what it is today, and we can all agree to drink to that.

After receiving her degree in Art History from the University of Vermont, Rebeccah Marsters decided to go to culinary school where she completed an associate’s degree in Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales in North Carolina.  After, she began an internship at America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) in Brookline, MA and was later hired full-time at ATK and now work as Assistant Test Cook for Cook’s Country magazine where I develop and test recipes and produce the food for the magazine’s photo shoots.

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Rosé: Not to be mistaken for White Zinfandel

By Rebeccah Marsters

As a lover of rosé wine, I must admit that there is a small part of me that relishes its poor reputation. Like discovering a hot new band before they become popular, there’s satisfaction in appreciating the underdog (let alone the fact that it helps prices stay low). In recent years, however, there has been a growing number of people scooping up these quintessential summer quaffs. From rusty salmon to limpid petal, appreciating these pink-hued wines comes not only from sipping and enjoying, although this is an important and fun part, but also from a firm understanding of how they’re made, where they came from, and where they’ve been for the past few decades that left them on such uneasy footing.

If rosé is indeed maligned in the wine world, then White Zinfandel was its prime persecutor. For those wine lovers who have still not come over to the pink side, repeat after me: White Zinfandel is NOT rosé!

True rosé wines have various manifestations: from pale and watery, to those approaching the intensity of a light red, and from quite sweet to bone dry. Despite what kindergarten art class taught us about mixing colors, a pink wine is not made by simply mixing a red and a white.  Although the production of rosé wines does borrow techniques from both white wine and red wine vinification (winemaking). There is one exception to my statement about mixing and that takes place in the Champagne region.  It is here that it is common for the base wine for rosé champagne to be made by blending the house’s white wine with red.

In regions that focus on rosé production, the process begins as it does for red wine: by crushing black grapes and letting the juice sit in contact with the skins. The pigment from the skins begins to leech out and the color of the resulting mixture, called the must, depends on how long this scenario is allowed to play out. For red wines, skin contact continues throughout fermentation, lending deep hues and higher tannin levels. For rosés, the liquid is removed from the solids after only a few days and then fermentation follows.

Once the intensity of the color has been established, rosé wine is treated more like a white than a red. As with white wines, it is fermented at a lower temperature in neutral wood or stainless steel to preserve the freshness and delicate fruit flavors. The finished product can be as lean and youthful as a white, but slightly weightier, often exhibiting the berry and red fruit notes typical of a red, with just a hint of tannic grip. These wines are seldom meant for ageing, making them the perfect match for the fleeting heat of the summer months, and equally ideal for food pairing, as they have the ability to complement a wide range of dishes and beautifully bridge the gap between heavier and lighter fare. 

Due to their crisp and refreshing nature, it is not surprising that these wines are rooted in parts of the world where the scorching sun can make sipping a tannic red about as appealing as sitting down to a bowl of hot stew. The resourceful folks in these locales figured out how to turn their revered and ubiquitous black grapes into a style of wine that would sustain them through even the most brutal summer days. In Provence (France), the varietals of Grenache and Cinsaut, among other grapes, are turned into predominantly dry rosés that can be fresh and fruity, but also offer the characteristic herbal aromas of the sunbaked south of France. In Tavel and Lirac in the Southern Rhône (France) the production of rosé is a revered art, while wines from Anjou in the Loire Valley utilize Cabernet Franc, Grolleau, and Gamay, and run the gamut of quality levels. In Spain, the classic Rioja grapes can find wonderful expression in rosés that display everything from fresh juicy strawberry to earthy spice, and while Italy is not as well known for its pink wines, certain regions do make what is known as chiaretto.

And that brings us to the United States. The vinification processes discussed thus far are undertaken with the solitary goal of producing rosé wine.  Although there are wineries that practice the European methods of creating rosé, most look to another method. Saignée, or the bleeding method, involves lightly crushing the black grapes, then vatting them for twelve to twenty-four hours.  At this point, a portion of the juice is run off and fermented, becoming a style of rosé. 

In 1972, when Robert Trinchero of California’s Sutter Home found himself with an abundance of Zinfandel grapes in the face of a burgeoning demand for white wines. He decided to utilize the saignée method to come up with a solution. The result was a pink wine that was sweet, easy drinking, and presented as having a clearly stated its kinship to white wines. The wine was called White Zinfandel.  These factors along with the affordability of the wine led to the significant expansion of the “blush” wine market in a very short time.

However times do change and the appeal of White Zinfandel has in many ways receded.  This is largely due to the development of the American palate and its evolution towards a drier style of wine. The pink hue began to signify an undesirable level of sweetness, and thus rosés of all styles gained an undeserved stigma due solely to a shared shade.

The good news is that high quality rosés are now widely available, and more are being debuted each season. As producers catch on to the developing palates of consumers, they are willing to devote a larger portion of their capital to improving these wines, since the guaranteed market protects their investment.

Overall, Americans are starting to shift away from cloying and sugary in favor of crisp, high-acid, fruit-filled options. Whatever the reason for this sea change, it bodes well for wine drinkers and winemakers alike. While pink wine can sadly no longer be the exclusive mistress to the fortunate few, it’s about time she came out of the shadows and resurrected her reputation as an upstanding libation.

When the weather grows mild once again and the shelves of your local wine store begin to look rosier, take advantage of the affordability and availability of these wines while you can. Although the bargains may not last, rosé wines are here to stay.

After receiving her degree in Art History from the University of Vermont, Rebeccah Marsters decided to go to culinary school where she completed an associate’s degree in Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales in North Carolina.  After, she began an internship at America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) in Brookline, MA and was later hired full-time at ATK and now work as Assistant Test Cook for Cook’s Country magazine where she develops and test recipes and produces the food for the magazine’s photo shoots.


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Cognac: Class in a Glass

By Rebeccah Marsters

Somewhere in Britain there are six men in jail. Their crime? Hijacking a truck full of hooch. It may not strike fear into the hearts of cellmates who pose the clichéd ‘what are you in for?’ question, but these men may be smarter than you think. Not smart enough to escape capture, granted, but the truck was carrying over $150,000 worth of top-shelf brandy- Courvoisier, to be exact. Thanks to Busta Rhymes, Tupac, and even president Obama, we’ve all heard of Hennessy and Courvoisier, even if we don’t know exactly what they are. Cognac companies have received endorsements from some unlikely sources over the years, but more than a century of producing finely-crafted French brandies speaks for itself. There’s a lot more to this spirit than a following of rappers and felons, and whether your loyalty is to Hennessy, Courvoisier, or even Remy Martin, the history of cognac is worth a closer look.

Today, brandy is produced all over the world, and is basically any spirit that is distilled from wine made of grapes (although there are fruit and pomace brandies as well). While distillation dates back to ancient Egypt, and early manifestations of brandy were used medicinally in the Greek and Roman empires, we’ll jump ahead to the 16th century, when Dutch merchants were shipping wine from France and Spain to England and Northern Europe. Unfortunately, the thin, high acid white wines didn’t fare well on the journey, so the Dutch began to concentrate, or distill, the wine as a method of preservation. A bonus was that the concentrated stuff took up far less cargo space, so with the intention of diluting it back down upon arrival, this ‘cooked’ wine called brandewijn (‘burnt wine’), made its way across the ocean. As it turned out, brandewijn was pretty good as it was; the distillation process changed the flavors of the previously unexceptional wine, and storing it in wooden barrels during the journey further enhanced it- not to mention the relative alacrity with which it took effect on the drinker.

Due to its proximity to navigable rivers, one of the most popular areas for these exported brandies was the Charente in southwestern France. In the 17th century, a family in this area began to double distill their brandy, and in the 18th century other families settled here and began to control the trade of this very special brandy called cognac. Cognac, along with Jarnac, are the major towns in the Charente, and despite being home to several large, prestigious cognac houses, the region remains picturesque and rural. Besides the signature spirit, the area is renowned for its butter, snails, fleur de sel, and, interestingly enough, it’s bedroom footwear, known as the Charentaise slipper. Since the early 1900s, cognac has been protected by AOC (appellation d’origine controlee) status, and the delimited area in which it can be produced officially lies in the départements of Charente and Charente-Maritime. About 70 miles north of Bordeaux, it is the third largest vineyard area in France with about 200,000 acres of vines, and what is planted on this protected, revered land? One of the most neutral-tasting, ubiquitously-grown grapes in the world: Ugni Blanc.

Knowing that AOC status brings with it rigorous laws and restrictions, you might wonder why cognac should not be made from only the finest, most highly regarded grapes. In actuality, the best wine for distillation is high acid, low alcohol (about 8 to 10 percent), and fairly bland, and that is just what is produced in the Charente. No chaptalization is allowed, and while nine grape varieties are permitted, Ugni Blanc is by far the most common. Known as Trebbiano in Italy (and, oddly enough, as Saint-Emilion in the Cognac region) this white grape is prized not for the remarkable wines that it makes, but for its vigor, hardiness, mold resistance, tough skin, and high yields. This workhorse of a grape is thought to have originated in the Eastern Mediterranean, and may be a descendant of the Italian Garganega. Of the other eight grapes allowed, Colombard and Folle Blanche account for most of the remainder of the juice, but Folignan, Jurançon blanc, Meslier Saint-François, Sélect, Montils, and Sémillon may also be represented in small proportions.

Besides the grapes, there are other stipulations set forth by the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine), which help insure that the quality is worth the high price tag cognac can demand. As previously mentioned, cognac is double distilled, and the distillation takes place in copper Charentais pot stills traditional in the area. After the first distillation of base wine, the brouillis emerges at about one third the volume of the original, and between 26 and 29 percent alcohol. For the second distillation, or la bonne chauffe, three batches of brouillis go in, and the resulting product has about 72 percent alcohol; this is a clear spirit known as eau de vie, or water of life, and is basically un-aged brandy. Many inexpensive brandies are not aged in wood at all, and rely instead on artificial coloring to achieve their amber hue, and while caramel coloring is permitted for cognac, ageing is also strictly enforced.

As cognac ages, not only does it mellow and soften as it picks up flavor and color from the barrels, but due to evaporation, the alcohol naturally comes down to about 60 percent. After ageing, a final blending occurs during which spirits of different ages are combined to achieve the style of that house, and a final dilution takes place, bringing the alcohol down to 40 percent. All cognac must be aged in oak from the forests of Limousin or Tronçais for a period of at least two years, but most are far older than this. The letters you see on the label actually signify that the youngest cognac in the blend has spent at least two (VS or ***), four (VSOP), or six (XO) years in oak, but there are probably much older components in the bottle as well. These acronymic designations may seem esoteric, but their meanings are quite simple: VS stands for ‘very special’, VSOP is ‘very superior (or special) old pale’, and XO is ‘extra old’. In addition to these three, there are a few categories which lie somewhere between VSOP and XO (Napoléon, Extra, Vieux), and a couple that exceed XO (Vieille Réserve, Hors d’Age), but these are not as explicitly defined, and less commonly used these days. Another way you might see age expressed is with the compte system, which gives a cognac one compte for each year it has been in barrel. Thus, a compte 2 cognac is one whose youngest eau de vie is at least two years old.

While this may already seem overly complex in the way of so many French things, there are a few more terms concerning quality level that you may encounter. These will also appear on cognac labels, and have to do with where in the Cognac region the grapes are from. The six districts, in descending order of caliber, are Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaire. Speaking of overly complicated French things, this has nothing to do with sparkling Champagne, but instead refers to the Latin word campagna, meaning open field, and distinguishes these superior vineyards from those in wooded areas (bois meaning forest). If a bottle says Fine Champagne, this means that the grapes were sourced only from the two best districts, with at least half coming from Grande Champagne. 

So once you’ve chosen your cognac and shelled out what is likely no small sum, how do you go about drinking it? Put some Tupac on your iPod and call up your crew? Light a fire and get out your snifter ala Leon Phelps (The ‘Ladies Man’)? There are several hackneyed scenarios to choose from, but before the rap star resurrection, cognac’s image was actually in grave danger due to its reputation as an old man’s drink. There are plenty of un-clichéd ways to enjoy cognac, however, from mixing it into a classic cocktail like a sidecar or French connection, to making a pan sauce for beef medallions. As with wine, cognac can display an array of different aromas and flavors, and at its best is supremely complex, smooth, and balanced. It’s been said that the five principle aromas that characterize cognac are vanilla, orange, apricot, prune, and caramel, but this is just a jumping off point. Whether your cognac curiosity stems from its prestigious history or its hip-hop accolades, this spirit truly lives up to its reputation, and over-complicated though it may seem, to experience it in the glass is all it takes to understand its acclaim.

After receiving her degree in Art History from the University of Vermont, Rebeccah Marsters decided to go to culinary school where she completed an associate’s degree in Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales in North Carolina.  After, she began an internship at America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) in Brookline, MA and was later hired full-time at ATK and now work as Assistant Test Cook for Cook’s Country magazine where I develop and test recipes and produce the food for the magazine’s photo shoots.


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