Do you ever wonder why most wines come in glass bottles, as opposed to boxes, cartons, or mini barrels? We do, too! That's why we're starting a new blog series looking at the different packaging options available, how they're made, how they came to be used for wine packaging, and what the pros and cons are of using them. And with that, let's start with the obvious...
Glass remains by far the most popular packaging format for wine, with 85% of the market. The highest consumer acceptance is for glass with cork closure.
Glass was first used as a packaging option in the first century BC, but the technology was tightly guarded. It first came to be used as a popular wine packaging material in the mid-1800s once the process of blowing a bottle was automated-- until then, there was too much bottle variation for it to be effective as a packaging option for most wineries.
The raw materials of glass are: silica sand, sodium oxide (soda ash), calcium oxide (limestone), dolomite and feldspar, which are blended according to a precise recipe. Other metal oxides, which confer different colors to the final product, may be incorporated into the recipe in minute amounts. These raw materials are mixed together with about 25-30% cullet (broken glass), to lower the melting point of the entire mixture before it is fed into a furnace, blow molded, and annealed. The 750-mL bottle is the most typical size.
Glass is an impermeable and inert container— important for holding a product that relies entirely on its sensory profile. From a producer’s standpoint, there are two major decisions to be made with regard to wine quality when wine is packaged in glass. The first is the color of the glass; many wines will undergo chemical changes from exposure to UV rays. Certain whites (such as Pinot Grigio) can smell and taste “skunky,” and red wines can experience bleaching of their anthocyanins. For these wines, darker glass affords more protection.
Unfortunately, glass is a somewhat fragile package, and improper handling can lead to breakage. This is a downside for producers, retailers, and customers alike. A breakage event can impact more than just the bottles that have broken—seepage may destroy labels on undamaged bottles, diminishing salability. Additionally, broken glass is a safety hazard.
Bottles are also weighty, which limits the volume that can be transported at one time. Trucks are limited on load weight, and can only carry around 1,200 cases, even accounting for variations in bottle weight. Rail containers can hold three to four times that. Add to this that a case is not a particularly compact package, with about half the box comprising empty space, and the efficiency of moving glass-packaged wine is greatly diminished. From an environmental standpoint, the weight of the glass, plus the fuel required to move it can more than double the carbon footprint of the product— something that matters to many consumers in an age of increasing attention to climate change.
Most of you may be familiar with tannin as a structural and mouthfeel component of wine, but did you know it's also a fairly common wine ingredient?
Tannins can be used at just about any point in the winemaking process. They come from a few sources-- grapes themselves, oak, chestnut, nut galls, and other, rarer woods. You can find them in liquid or powdered forms. Their uses in wine are varied, and can be different dependent on their source. Regardless, they all protect against oxidation, which helps boost the longevity of the wine.
To this end, they can be added to white juice or wines. They may also be added to bind up with off aroma compounds. In the case of grapes that are somewhat moldy, tannin can be useful in binding with certain fungal enzymes that can speed up oxidation and browning.
For red wines, tannin added early in the fermentation process is considered "sacrificial." You add some to protect the color of the wine, giving proteins and other particles in the fermenting must something to bind to, rather than those already present in the grapes, thus leaving more of the grapes' naturally occuring tannin for the aging process. There's debate as to whether this strategy truly works. To be sure, though, a tannin cannot add color to a wine that is already weak in it.
Tannins can also be added prior to barreling down, while aging, or just prior to bottling. These tannins can be incorporated to help refresh the aromas of tired wines, add a subtle aroma or mouthfeel component (such as chocolate or caramel), or to give a bit more structure to the wine. They should never be used in a way that substantially alters a wine. They're a tool for refining, not for changing the character entirely. And before any addition, there's no substitute for a bench trial-- setting up a specific volume, dosing in the tannin, and tasting to see what works best for the wine.
And when in doubt, you can always ask a technical sales representative what they might recommend. These folks are usually former winemakers themselves, and want you to come away with a better understanding of the tools, as well as a nice wine.
I feel so bad for Merlot sometimes. Ever since a certain film came out, scores of people were duped into believing that Merlot was an inferior grape. Sales of Merlot tanked, and acres upon acres of established merlot vines were grafted over for more popular varieties.
Merlot didn't deserve this.
The first historical mention of the variety was at the end of the 18th century in the Bordeaux area. This makes sense, since it is likely here that Merlot originated, growing on an island in the Garonne River. Other origin hypothesis place it broadly in the region-- somewhere from southwestern France or the Pais Vasco in Spain. It was named after the blackbirds who liked to eat the grape-- in French, merle means blackbird, and in Occitan, a language of southern France and Spain, the word for blackbird is actually merlau, even closer to the grape's name itself.
DNA analysis tells us that Merlot is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and a very obscure grape called "Magdeleine Noire des Charentes." Thanks to the Cabernet Franc, that makes Merlot the often overshadowed half-sibling of Cabernet Sauvignon.
It's growing habits are to bud early, ripen midway through the season, and to throw out moderate to vigorous vegetative growth. It does well in clay-limestone soils, so in places like Bordeaux where the soils range from gravel to clay, you will often see Merlot planted on the heavier clay. But more than that, it tends to be grown along with Cabernet Sauvignon so often because it is a perfect blending companion, giving blends a rich fruitiness and roundness to hang on Cabernet Sauvignon's more robust tannin structure. It can also often reach higher sugar levels than Cabs, especially when grown in marginal climates, which results in a higher alcohol percentage in the finished wine.
Geographically speaking, Merlot can be found just about anywhere wine is grown-- from Turkey to Slovenia to New Zealand to New Mexico. Our 2015 Merlot came in on August 18th from the Cadeuceus Vineyards on the Willcox bench. We brought in just under three tons, fermented it in stainless, and then transferred it to barrels for aging -- 43% new French oak, and 57% neutral oak. We let it rest for 18 months before bottling. It's at its peak with delicate rose and cedar aromas backed by red fruit. Plum jam and fresh fig wash over your palate, which then transitions to vanilla, toasted hazelnut and caramel on the finish. It's a pretty tasty wine. We definitely take our Merlot seriously around here.
So if you're ready to release yourself from the tyranny of the opinions of movie personalities, why doen't you stop by our tasting room and give the Merlot a shot? We're releasing it this Friday!
What is the difference between new and neutral oak? The short answer is: extractable flavor.
After wine is placed in a barrel for the first time, it absorbs a huge amount of the flavor and aroma compounds that were generated during the barrel's toasting-- vanillin (vanilla), syringaldehyde (spicy, smoky), other aromatic aldehydes (resinous), lactones (oaky, coconut), and aromatic phenolics (clove, smoky). As these are extracted into the wine, the concentration available for further extraction is diminished. It varies from winery to winery, but most folks consider a barrel to be effectively neutral somewhere between the 4th and 6th fill. Neutrality in this case means that no discernable oak compounds are extracted into the wine held in barrel.
This doesn't mean that the barrel itself is useless, though. Despite not contributing to the wine's aromatic or flavor profile via extractables, the oak provides a semi-permeable vessel that can allow a wine the space it needs to soften through slow oxidation, and allows the polymerization reactions necessary for tannins to smooth out to take place.
Not everyone loves the flavors of big oak, and a mix of new and neutral oak can help a winemaker strike the correct balance between the oak complexity and allowing the fruit's varietal flavors to shine.
Have you ever had the pleasure of sipping on a 50 year old wine? If so, do you do it regularly? If you do, can I come to dinner sometime? The reality for most of us wine drinkers is that popping open aged wine is an infrequent occurance. However, there is a perception that aged wines are by necessity better than younger wines. What is happening in a bottle that is aging, though? And what allows those really remarkable bottles to sit for generations?
There are a few major components of a wine that allow it to age-- protection from oxygen, the way it is stored, and the concentration of certain compounds in the wine. White wines and red wines, because of their differences in desired characteristics, concentrations of tannins and other anti-oxidative compounds, age differently.
The aging process is generally broken down into two phases. Maturation is the time post-fermentation during which the wine sits in barrel or tank. Time in barrel or bulk tank typically lasts anywhere from 6-36 months. During this time, the wine may be treated with clafiying agents, racked a number of times, and generally has some degree of contact with the oxygen in the atmosphere through the bung in the barrel and through general permeation through the wood. During this time, the yeast left over from fermentation drops out of solution, and the initial concentration of fruity esters drops as they transform into other compounds. Since most white wines are prized for their fresh, delicate fruit aromas, it is generally best to consume them young, before these esters have broken down too much. This is why you tend to see more recent-vintage whites on the shelves than reds.
Reductive aging begins when the wine is bottled. There are a few major factors that influence the aging process of the wine in bottle: oxygen, temperature, light, and pH.
Once in bottle, the wine's contact with oxygen is greatly reduced, with the only access being through the closure (cork, synthetic, or screwcap). The presence of oxygen in bottle can lead to a myriad of issues, and certain types of wine are more prone to oxidation than others. This is why prior to bottling, it's important to protect the wine from oxygen pick-up. Excessive oxygen in bottle can lead to browning of both white and red wines, as well as oxidative aromas and flavors-- those of bruised or rotting fruit. Acetaldehyde concentration increases, and certain phenols can become oxidized giving the wine flavors such as cooked cabbage.
Temperature can mean the difference between a fresh-tasting wine and a tired wine. Most chemical reactions speed up at higher temperatures, and those involved in wine aging are no exception. One example of this would be the appearance of a gasoline/kerosene aroma in Riesling-- a compound known as TDN accumulates quickly once storage temperatures creep into the 70s and 80s.
Light exposure plays a role in wine aging and quality, as ultraviolet light leads to the production of sulfur off-aromas that can make white and sparkling wines, especially, taste skunky.
The pH of the wine has a huge effect on aging, because the higher the pH, the more preservatives needed to protect against oxidation. The pH affects the equilibrium of phenolics, and esters in the wine. At higher pH you can shift the phenolics in a wine into a form that makes them more susceptible to oxidation. This is partially why higher acid wines with low pH tend to have more longevity. Additionally, the presence of a high concentration of tannins also has an antioxidative and slightly antimicrobial action, thus conferring to red wines an additional measure of protection that slows the effects of aging. And it's the slowing of the aging process that allows us to taste over a longer period of time, and choose the moment when we deem a wine "just right" to drink.