Put a Cork in It! (Your Wine Bottle, That Is.)

“His heart danced upon her movement like a cork upon a tide.” — James Joyce

We all have such romantic notions about wine, don’t we…I wonder if we’d have felt the same way 300 years ago, when wine bottles were sealed with oil-soaked rags?

Corks

Corks lend a fanciful touch to the ceremony of cracking a special bottle – a sense that we’re about to celebrate something – that screw-on caps just can’t emulate. We sniff our corks, we admire their calligraphy, we hoard them. Have you ever met anyone who hoards screw-on caps? I think not.

Corks (the real kind, not those annoying, synthetic polyethylene things) are made from the light, tough outer layer of bark of the cork oak tree, a.k.a. Quercus suber – not to be confused with the cork tree, which also sports a corky bark but isn’t used for making wine corks. The cork oak is considered sustainable because it can be harvested without cutting down the tree; once the tree reaches 25 to 30 years old the bark is stripped and the tree lives on. Every seven or nine years (depending on whom you ask), the tree is ready to be stripped again; it’s the second stripping that produces the best wine corks.

Cork tree

[A guide explaining the cork oak tree on the grounds of SIMI Winery in Healdsburg, California.]

Cork oaks, which live an average of 200 years, grow in half a dozen countries, but most corks are produced in Portugal  – where the higher-quality corks are sourced – and Spain. And here’s something to remember when you dream of opening your own winery: the finest corks can cost bottlers as much as 1 Euro each, or at today’s conversion rate, about $1.17.

Harvesting cork is a delicate operation. Workers called “extractors” use a sharp axe to make two cuts: one horizontal slice around the tree, called a crown or necklace, and several vertical cuts called rulers or openings. Then they push the axe handle into the ruler – gently, to avoid damaging the tree – and peel off large sections of cork called planks.

Cork is a remarkable substance: its tiny air pockets make it buoyant, about four times lighter than water. It’s fire resistant (which is why it’s used in making home insulation) and forms a watertight seal in the neck of a wine bottle. Yet it permits a tiny bit of oxygen into the bottle, about one milligram of oxygen each year, enabling the wine’s flavor and aroma to evolve over time.

There are advantages to using synthetic corks, of course. They allow a consistent amount of oxygen into the bottle, and they don’t carry “cork taint,” caused by TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), the chemical compound that can make your wine smell like Grandma’s moldy basement – an affliction found in about 1 percent of wine bottles. And TCA isn’t picky; it’s just as happy spoiling a $100 bottle as that cheap $6 bottle you snuck into your grocery cart.

For you cork hoarders, you can spin your cache into cash: used wine corks sell online to crafters and jewelry artists, about $8 to $10 in batches of 100. You can unload your used synthetic corks, too, for up to 14 cents each. And by the way, don’t bother sniffing the cork when you open a bottle. Flaws are detected more easily by smelling and tasting the wine itself; the cork probably won’t indicate anything important.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  NVnonvintage. When you look at the labels of most wines, you’ll see a year – the year when the grapes were grown and harvested, or the “vintage.” But in wine reviews or restaurant wine lists, you’ll often see the initials “NV.” That indicates the grapes used to produce that wine were harvested in two or more years. Winemakers blend grapes from different vintages if they’re looking for consistent aromas, tastes and other qualities in the wine, year after year.

Caranto PNVino ‘View:  A delicious example of an NV wine is Astoria’s Caranto Pinot Noir (13 percent alcohol, $11). The spicy, cinnamon first taste opens up to plums – maybe prunes – with a smoky, blackberry jam finish. My last glass was especially creamy (think fig newton, blackberry pie crust). This full-bodied wine with medium tannins is a terrific value! We paired it with pasta from Rustichella d/Abruzzo that was gluten-free, made from a red-lentil base, in a cold chicken-cashew salad – a recipe we found online. We chilled the wine slightly for our perfect summer supper.

Cheers!

Mary

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Napa vs Sonoma – Which Sparkling Wine Shall We Pour Tonight?

If you’re a fan of fizzy wines, you already (probably) know that California is not a one-bubbly-fits-all state. If you didn’t know that, we won’t out you! Just get a few basics down and you’ll get more out of your sparklers.

Gloria Ferrer glass

[Photo by Sarah Stierch, “Sparkling Wine at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards, Sonoma, California” via Flickr.com]

The first sparkling wine in America was a sparkling Catawba, produced in Ohio (we Ohioans like to boast), downstate near Cincinnati, by Nicholas Longworth in the 1830s. It only took another 30 years for Jacob Schram to purchase his vineyard property in Napa Valley and start producing California’s first quality sparkling wines. By 1870, Schram had planted 30,000 vines and was aging his earliest vintages in cool caves.

Napa is a warm, narrow valley, protected from the cold air of the Pacific Ocean by low mountain ranges but still cooled by the waters of San Pablo Bay. Growers there enjoy calcium-rich soil and a Mediterranean climate with a warm, sunny growing season – ideal for growing Chardonnay, one of the prime grapes used in making their sparkling wines. The southern part of Napa, nearer to the bay, is cooler than the rest of the valley.

Schram’s little enterprise didn’t make it past Prohibition, but new owners resurrected Schramsberg Vineyards  in 1965 and still use those caves to store their wines, considered some of the finest in California.

About 20 years later, the Ferrer family from Barcelona discovered the Mediterranean climate and terroir of Sonoma County. Just west of Napa and more diverse in terms of soil and plantings (think: redwood forests), Sonoma has cooler nights, thanks to 60 miles of Pacific coastline and an ocean cool-down. The region reminded José Ferrer of his family home in Catalonia, especially good for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so it was there he built Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards and named the new winery after his wife.

Only the practiced palate would discern real differences between Schramsberg and Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines. Schramsberg’s might taste a little stonier, slightly bready and creamy, with clear tropical fruit notes. Gloria Ferrer’s sparklers might be fruitier with a little more cinnamon coming through.

But when you’re staring at that confusing wall of bottles in the store, maybe it’s most important to remember that both wineries produce their sparkling wines using the Methode Champenoise, or “Classic (Traditional) Method.” We’ll save the long version for another day; suffice it to say that sparkling wines displaying any of those phrases on the label, and “Fermented in This Bottle,” have undergone the hands-on, multiple steps necessary to create the finest sparkling wines. It’s the same technique used to produce Champagne (which comes from the Champagne region of France, but you knew that, right?). It will cost a little more than sparkling wine whose label says it was fermented inside the bottle (rather than this), or using the Charmat or “outside the bottle” (i.e., in a tank) method, but it’s worth paying extra for the classic-method wine. That’s a difference you will taste.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Mayacamas and Vaca MountainsWhen you’re looking at wines from regions as popular as Napa Valley and Sonoma County, it helps to orient yourself geographically. Any serious discussion of Napa and Sonoma is likely to mention these important mountain ranges because they affect the grapes and, ultimately, the wine: the Mayacamas Mountains run along the western edge of Napa, protecting it from the cooler Sonoma air, and the Vaca Range forms Napa’s eastern boundary. If you’re contemplating any form of wine certification, memorize these two names – you’ll see them on just about every exam.

Patrick bubbly

Vino ‘View:  With the onset of summer, we wanted a couple of cool sparklers to sip on the porch. We chose two delicious, affordable California bottles: Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Blancs and Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Noirs (both Methode Champenoise, both 12.5 percent alcohol, both $22). The 100-percent Pinot Noir has a rosy tinge and gave us tiny, assertive bubbles. The aroma was lemon at first, then it melted into a rich pear that changed to apple in our mouths. The all-Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs was a melon-and-banana delight, a super-tropical feel and perfect for our warm-weather neighbor-watching. That handsome fellow in the photo is my nephew, Patrick Straffen – we were celebrating because he and my niece, Emily Straffen, had just passed their Level 2 WSET exams! You go, guys!

Cheers,

Mary