Hear ye, hear ye! Natural wines at Oakland’s most sophisticated wine shop – Paul Marcus Wines

What’s all the hullabaloo about natural wine? Here at Paul Marcus Wines we get questions – oh so many (wonderful) questions about wine from our customers. Many of these queries, and probably #1 in terms of frequency, involve food and wine. For example, what is the best wine to serve with grilled asparagus and roast chicken (we say Gruner Veltliner!). However, a close second most often involves which wines are produced from vineyards that are organically farmed, and even more specifically, bottles that are “natural wines”.

What is old is often new again, and such is the case with many principles and practices that encompass natural wine. You can learn more about the natural wine movement and its guiding principles in THE ANSWER: A Guide to Natural Wines.

Have we peaked your interest in natural wines? At the shop we’ve posted a natural wine legend (pictured above), to help you easily locate these vinous gems. Our natural wine guide accomplishes two things:

  1. Outlines our working definition and parameters for what constitutes a natural wine.
  2. Describes what each colored flower tag represents in terms of a specific style of wine. Namely, a red wine, white wine or orange wine (a white wine fermented on its skins, generally for a more extended length of time).

Note: these tags represent only a partial selection of natural wines available at PMW.

Of course, we are always here to answer questions regarding natural wines or provide a recommendation or two. However, we realize that sometimes folks just like to tour the shop, glean information on their own, then grab the perfect natural wine and go. If so, then our natural wine guide and nifty colored tags were made just for you.

We’ll see you at the shop!

What is Natural Wine?What is Natural Wine?

There is currently no official classification or official set of standards for the term “natural wine”. However, the wine profession today acknowledges that natural winemaking employs a low intervention and unmanipulated approach to producing wine, both in the vineyard and winery. Working with grapes that are, at the very least, organically farmed, natural winemakers produce wines that are minimally processed in order to showcase their unique and vibrant characteristics.

Are Natural Wines the same as organic wines?

Wines under the “Natural Wine” umbrella, so to speak, come from vineyards that are farmed naturally. These vineyards are farmed either organically or biodynamically. As such, no artificial fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides or pesticides are utilized. Some of the vineyards may carry an organic or biodynamic certification. Two examples include Ecocert and Demeter, respectively. However, these types of certification are not a requirement of natural wine.

While natural wines come from organically farmed vineyards, not all organically farmed wines are “natural wines”. An example: A wine might come from an organically farmed vineyard, but cultured yeast is used to start the primary fermentation. A second example: Organically farmed grape must (unfermented grape juice) might be doctored with the addition of tartaric acid before the primary fermentation in order to increase acidity and improve the balance of a wine.

What is permitted and restricted in natural winemaking?

Throughout the winemaking process, natural winemakers adhere to the guiding principle “nothing added, nothing taken away.” More specifically, primary fermentation takes place via native yeasts, and without the introduction of cultured yeast strains either during the primary or malolactic fermentation (if this occurs). Natural winemakers also eschew any and all additions or subtractions to wine during the winemaking process. This includes chaptalization, acidification, must concentration, or chemical additions to alter the texture, color or tannic structure of the wine. Natural wines are also bottled un-fined and unfiltered, as natural winemakers believe that doing so alters the inherent quality, and in some cases, the age worthiness of the wine. Natural wines are bottled either with no, or minimal amounts of SO2 or sulfur dioxide.

Do Natural Wines contain sulfites?

Natural wines are bottled either with no, or minimal amounts of SO2 or sulfur dioxide. The decision to add or refrain from using sulfur dioxide at bottling is open to debate within the natural wine world. Certain winemakers avoid any SO2 addition before bottling, as they believe that the chemical additive alters the inherent quality and vibrancy of the wine. However, other natural winemakers bottle their wines with modest additions of SO2, (to prevent premature oxidation or microbial growth) to ensure that the wines are stable enough to travel overseas and withstand possible changing environments. In these instances, the levels of SO2 utilized are well below industry standards, often not exceeding 40mg/L.

Note: all wines contain SO2 (collectively known as sulfites), as it is a by-product of fermentation. Even wines that are bottled without sulfur may concentrations of SO2 of up to 10 ml/L.

My glass of natural wine is hazy and has sediment, is this normal?

Natural wines are in most instances bottled un-fined and unfiltered, as natural winemakers believe that doing so compromises the inherent quality, wine experience, and in some cases, the age worthiness of the wine. This applies to all styles of wine including red, white, rose and sparkling. This being the case, it is not unusual, and completely acceptable, for white wines to exhibit a slightly hazing appearance, or for red wines to contain residual sediment at the bottom of the glass.

How can I identify Natural wines?

There is currently no official certification for natural wines. As such, a definitive list of natural wine producers is somewhat nebulous. However, a great place to start familiarize oneself with the natural winemakers and wineries, is to check out Raw Wine. Founded by Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron, Raw Wine is a website dedicated to promoting natural wines via education and their annual natural wine fair. Included on the site is a list of producers around the world who adhere to natural winemaking principles.

It is important to note that many wineries who do not actively identify with the natural wine movement have in fact been making wines in this manner for generations. The guidelines of natural winemaking are in many instances the same principles that winemakers employed more than a hundred years ago, and before the rise of agri-business in the second half of the 20th century. This being the case, it’s also a great idea to ask your favorite local wine merchant exactly which producers employ natural winemaking principles.

Artichokes - hard-to-pair spring vegetables

Sunny days, new blossoms, birdsong… And the arrival of an assortment of Spring-specific produce. It’s official, the season is here! Artichokes, asparagus, broad beans and green garlic.These delectable and hard-to-pair with veggies are everywhere, begging to be put into pasta, frittata, risotto and braises. And while we here at Paul Marcus agree that wine almost always enhances a meal, with these Spring arrivals, not just any wine will do! A red wine can clash with their strong earthy flavors, leaving you with a bitter taste in your mouth, while some whites can even become sweet and cloying when paired with them. Why does this happen, you might ask? Get ready for a little bit of science (but nothing too heavy, I promise!)

Artichokes - hard-to-pair spring vegetables

First of all, artichokes contain a chemical called cynarin which is unique to the plant. This cynarin binds to taste buds when you eat, temporarily inhibiting your ability to perceive sweetness. However, when you take a sip after your artichoke dip, that cynarin gets washed away, and voila! after its gone, suddenly everything tastes super sweet. Wow! In order to avoid this, it is best to select an herbaceous, high-acid white wine with no residual sugar. Although more than a few wines fit this bill- like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio- sommeliers and chefs agree that the most classic pairing with artichokes is an Austrian grape called Gruner Veltliner (Say: “Grew-nuh-felt-lean-ah.”) Gruner Veltliner generally produces wines dominated by vegetal notes, but many are also underscored by citrus, pear, melon, and subtle white pepper flavors. Its best served ice cold (and also goes beautifully with Japanese food- another fave cuisine of Spring).

Asparagus - Hard-to-Pair Spring VegetablesNow, let’s move on to asparagus. Since it has such an abundance of umami flavor, this veggie can make your glass or red taste metallic and stunted. I know, if that is the case, then why does red wine taste so wonderful with steak or cheeses, both which contain that lovely “umami” flavor? The answer is that unlike these foods, asparagus (and artichokes, for that matter) don’t have enough fat and salt in them, and your red ends up tasting acerbic. So if you are featuring asparagus in one of your recipes, it’s definitely best to reach for a white wine. And Gruner is a perfect pairing with this veggie as well! It truly is the solution to Spring’s fresh and zesty dishes. Come in and try the value-driven Malat or Gyerhof Gruners, or ask for a Schloss Gobelsburg or Brundelmyer if you are looking for something more high-end. You can find them all in Austrian section at the back of the shop.

With the arrival of spring, Paul Marcus Wines is ready to showcase our growing rosé selection!

What does a lighter pink wine signify? Will a darker hued rose taste sweet? Making a fruity but balanced pink wine is no small task. In fact, many winemakers confide that vinifying rosé wine can be more challenging than red or white wine production.

Why is this so? The answer: A rosé wine must walk a tightrope, balancing components of fruit, acid and alcohol with very little margin of error. Too much of any one component leaves what should otherwise be a fresh, crisp and vibrant pink, flat on its back, tasting ponderous and dull.  However, making the perfect pink wine is not just a matter of mixing red and white grape juice…

How is Rosé Wine Made?

High quality rosé wine is made utilizing the following 3 production methods:

Direct Press Method

After harvest, red grapes undergo skin contact for a short period of time before being pressed off. How much time exactly? Anywhere from almost immediately to 16 hours or so. During this period, a limited amount of color is extracted from the skins, often resulting in a lightly colored juice. A very pale and barely pink wine is sometimes referred to as a Vin Gris.  If the grapes are left on their skins a bit longer, a darker hue will result. A rosé produced via the direct press method is pictured above.

Saignée Method

The process saignée or bleeding off juice, was originally employed as a method of concentrating wine must before fermentation in order to produce a more robust red. Red grapes, either crushed or uncrushed but broken (preferable), are chilled down and macerate, generally between 1-4 days. The juice is then be drawn off or “bled” and without being pressed. This juice is then often fermented at cooler temperatures, in a similar manner to that of a white wine the finished rosé is generally a more robust and deeply colored wine. A rosé produced via the saignée method is pictured above.

Note: the finished color of a rose does not indicate a sweetness level. If all the sugar has been converted to alcohol during the fermentation process, the resulting wine will be a dry one, regardless of the color.

Blended Method

After fermentation is complete, white and red wines (usually around 5%) are blended together in order to achieve a desired level of pink or blush tint. The blending method is rarely employed in making still rosé wines and is illegal in the EU. However, the blended method is commonly used in the production of high-quality rosé Champagne as well as high quality sparkling wines around the world. The Champagne house Billecart-Salmon produces their iconic rosé Champagne in this manner.

With so many rosé wines, and so little time, it’s time to dive in and get started!

 

 

These 2018 rosé wines from our local winery friends are now available at Paul Marcus wines and ready for you to take home.

Expect to see a steady parade of pink over the next several months, from wine regions across the globe, and produced via the 3 methods of rose production described above. As you may know, we’re huge Rosé fanatics, and we can’t stop talking about Pink!

We’ll see you at the shop!

Wherein the folks at Paul Marcus Wines get to the bottom of our most FAQs in the shop.

Is my bottle of wine corked?

You show up to a friend’s party with two bottles of your favorite Côtes du Rhone. The first bottle tastes great! Fresh, vibrant and juicy…just as you remembered it. However, the second bottle smells a bit like wet cardboard, and doesn’t have nearly the same fruit nuances and charm as your first bottle. Is your bottle of wine corked?

I. What exactly is a corked wine?

Cork taint is a wine fault that is caused by certain molds sometimes present in the bark of cork trees. These molds can and do live in cork after it’s been harvested, processed and shipped out in the form of finished corks. For most people these molds are undetectable, until they co-mingle with chlorine or chlorophenol compounds at any time during the winemaking process.

When these cork bark molds and chlorine interact, an aromatically unpleasant compound derivative 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole can develop. This compound is more commonly known as TCA.

As you can imagine, the possibilities for the formation of TCA are numerous. For instance, cork bark undergoes sterilization in the production of corks, and bottles need to be sanitized before being used.

Of course, chlorine is found in our water supply, and many cleaning agents. For this reason, wineries are vigilant when it comes to their water source and how they sanitize not only bottles but all winery equipment, and often eschew such chlorine detergents in favor of peroxide based cleaners.

II. What does a corked wine smell like?

While small amounts of TCA a wine can result in a very subtle loss of aromatic fruit and vibrancy, higher levels of TCA can impart distinctive and downright unpleasant aromas.

Descriptions of a corked wine include: moldy cardboard, old sofa, swamp, wet dog or stale fruit flavors.

(Note: older bottles of wine will often display earthy and dank nuances when opened. This is not an indicator of TCA. Aged bottles of wine will often shed primary fruit notes and develop more secondary nuances. As such, special attention should be given when evaluating older wines)

III. What is not an indicator of a corked wine?

  1. An old, or crumbly cork. The physical appearance of a cork doesn’t indicate that a bottle wine is contaminated with TCA. Older bottles with corks that look less than pristine, often do a fantastic job protecting wine over the years, and with no evidence of cork taint.
  2. A pushed cork, or one that rises above the level of the bottle most often indicates that the wine was exposed to higher temperatures at some time in the past, or that the bottle was overfilled. This condition is not necessarily an indicator that a wine is corked.
  3. Bottle seepage or capsule corrosion. Wine seepage or a corroded capsule are unrelated to TCA contamination and do not indicate that a wine is corked.
  4. Mold on the cork. Frequently bottles of wine, especially older bottles that have been stored in humid conditions may develop some sort of mold or fungi around the wine capsule or cork. These fungi are not necessarily related to molds that cause TCA.

IV. What should I do if I think that I have a bottle of corked wine?

If, after careful evaluation you’ve concluded that TCA might be the culprit, here’s what you’ll want to do.

Don’t pour out the bottle of wine. Re-insert the cork and save as much of the wine as possible. A reputable wine shop will exchange a bottle of wine that is contaminated with TCA. However, they will want evaluate the bottle in person before making a definitive judgement.

What Is A Guided Tasting?

In the interest of sharing my passion for the broader world of wine with the people close to me, I decided to have a group of friends over for a guided wine tasting – that is, one in which one person (me in this case) guides the discussion and helps draw out responses from everyone. My goal was to share a bit of my knowledge and to help my friends understand better what exactly they’re getting when they order a bottle of wine in a restaurant or bring one home from a store. And as Mark said in our previous newsletter, “the goal, as in other kinds of parties, is good conversation and good times spent with good friends.” I wanted my tasting to be fun and not to get bogged down in formalities.

Choosing Your Theme

I had come up with several ideas for tastings, including one that focused on the formal techniques of wine tasting. One evening over dinner, I bounced my ideas off my partner. He’s a valuable resource in this discussion, since he has a good knowledge of wine but doesn’t take it too seriously. His suggestion seemed like the best: a comparison of common California wines and their French counterparts. The idea was to analyze how differences in climate, wine making, and culture can affect what’s in the glass – a conversation that sounded fun to me. This kind of tasting also would give me a chance to clear up the mysteries of French wine labels and help folks get an idea of just what expect from a particular bottle of French wine.

To Blind Taste or Not?

With this theme in mind, I decided to make it a formal, blind tasting of four reds and four whites. I chose Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon for the reds and Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay for the whites, with a California and French example of each of the four types. I chose to do the tasting blind (i.e., with the bottles in paper bags to cover up the labels) so that no one would be tempted to jump to conclusions based on any preconceived opinions in favor or against either California or French wines.

Having chosen a theme and format, I invited four couples over for an after-dinner wine tasting party. That made the total ten people, an ideal number, and with various prior engagements, the group whittled itself down to eight. I offered to supply all eight wines and to host the party at my house, asking others to bring some snacks to munch on while tasting. (Bread, cheese, and pâté are great to have on the table with a tasting – they help clear the palate and put something in your stomach besides wine.) I also borrowed some glasses from a co-worker. The idea was to do two flights of four wines – first the whites and then the reds.

I had the luxury of 64 small wine glasses (8 per person), but it would be possible to do this kind of tasting with 32 (4 per person) or even 16 (2 per person). In the latter case, you’d simply taste the wines in flights of two rather than four.

Keeping Conversations Going

I put a lot of thought into how to facilitate the conversation. I wanted to avoid my tendency to get too pedantic, knowing that no one wanted a lecture. But I also wanted to make sure that there was at least some serious discussion about the wines. I figured the best way to facilitate discussion was to minimize my spiels and ask everyone else questions. There are a few basic questions to ask when tasting wine that can help you start to make distinctions:

  1. How are these wines similar?
  2. How are these wines different?
  3. What do I like about each wine?
  4. What do I dislike about each wine?
  5. Which wine do I prefer, and why?

Providing Common Ground

I’ve experienced firsthand that dazed expression in other people when I start using language to describe wines that is routine to me. I wanted to avoid the pressure that people feel to come up with “good” descriptors and instead ask everyone to say in their own words what they thought of the wines. These basic questions provide a framework for discussion while allowing each person to respond to and talk about the wines in an individual way.

As my guests arrived, I assembled the wines in the kitchen, opened them, and smelled them to make sure that none of the bottles was corked. I put each of the bottles in a brown bag and wrote a letter on the bag (A through H) so that we’d have a way to refer to the wines as we talked about them.

Starting With Whites

Starting with whites, I poured two Sauvignon Blancs, 2001 Honig from Napa ($12.99) and 1998 Château Reynon Blanc from Bordeaux ($11.99), followed by two Chardonnays, 2000 Handley Anderson Valley from Mendocino ($15) and 2001 Trénel St.-Véran from Burgundy ($12.99). We tasted the wines first in pairs and then together as a group of four. After a few minutes of quietly sampling the wines, we had a short discussion and then ranked each pair according to personal preference.

In a tasting where all of the wines are a single varietal or style, it is common to taste all the wines and rank them from 1 to 8, according to preference or perceived quality. Since the different styles of whites and reds in this tasting are hard to compare with one another, I asked each person to pick a favorite from each pair.

It’s no surprise that opinions differed wildly from person to person. I was expecting the more familiar California wines to be favored, but that was not universally the case. The Honig Sauvignon Blanc was preferred over the Château Reynon Bordeaux Blanc, but both the Handley Chardonnay and Trénel white Burgundy had its share of admirers.

Follow with Reds

For the reds, we first tasted two Pinot Noirs: 2001 Elk Cove Willamette Valley from Oregon ($18) and Heresztyn Bourgogne Rouge from Burgundy ($16). (I could’ve substituted a California Pinot Noir for the Oregon one, but the Elk Cove seemed like the best West Coast Pinot from the store in the price range.) Then we finished with two Bordeaux style blends (wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot): 2000 Surh Luchtel Mosaique ($24) and 2000 Château Teynac St. Julien from Bordeaux ($19). The Oregon Pinot Noir was definitely the favorite, but the Bordeaux stood its own against its California counterpart.

Tasting a group of wines like this is a great opportunity for friends (new and old) to get together, with a built-in topic of conversation. Of course, after a few glasses of wine, people’s spirits are lifted and the conversation can go many directions. I selected a special bottle of wine from my cellar to enjoy after the main tasting – something a bit more complex than the relatively simple, inexpensive wines we’d tasted formally. It was a nice reminder that wine offers us all the opportunity to get together and enjoy our friends.

Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series on how to organize and host wine parties. The first article, in our March 2003 newsletter, discussed the types of wine parties and the basic procedures and considerations for any type. If you’d like to host a wine tasting similar to the one that Paul C. did – or something completely different – come talk to us. We’re eager to help you select the wines and provide pointers to help ensure that the party goes off well.

List of Wines Tasted

Here is a simple list of the wines we tasted:

Sauvignon Blancs

  • 2001 Honig from Napa ($12.99) and
  • 1998 Château Reynon Blanc from Bordeaux ($11.99)

Chardonnays

  • 2000 Handley Anderson Valley from Mendocino ($15)
  • 2001 Trénel St.-Véran from Burgundy ($12.99)

Pinot Noirs

  • 2001 Elk Cove Willamette Valley from Oregon ($18)
  • Heresztyn Bourgogne Rouge from Burgundy ($16)

Bordeaux Blends (Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot)

  • 2000 Surh Luchtel Mosaique ($24)
  • 2000 Château Teynac St. Julien from Bordeaux ($19)