Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Releasing Wines After the Curve

Why does Deerfield age red wine longer than other Wineries?

The short answer is that wine ages better in a barrel than it does in a bottle.

Most wine drinkers are aware that red wine improves with age. While this might not always be the case, it is widely believed primarily because of our experience with French wine. Particularly the better French wines, those with vintage and appellation designation have long been sold with the understanding that they require additional bottle aging before they are as enjoyable as they can be. While very few California wines of the last century could be represented as improving with age, the best California wines, those vintage and appellation designated, follow this French model, requiring additional bottle aging to show their best.

The difference in most modern California wines is that California winemakers try to make their wines more drinkable when young, even if they can improve with bottle age, because American’s don’t typically age wine. Most wine is consumed within hours of when it is purchased. Less than one percent of all wine sees any additional bottle aging in the cellars of consumers. This obviously has a disadvantage for the perceived quality of the California wine being consumed if that wine is known to improve with bottle age.

To better understand why this is the case and how this improvement with aging happens, we need to understand what happens during aging. Wine is a very complex beverage, like no other in the world. It is a complex suspension of minute solids in a solution of water and alcohol. These solids are held in suspension by weak electrostatic charges. These solids are made up of even smaller molecular structures based on carbon chains. These carbon chains are ultimately what produce everything we like, or dislike about wine. These molecular structures and the way these molecular complexes interact with each other, on our palates and our bodies are so complex that we have yet to fully understand it. There are textbooks and PhD papers written on the subject.

We do know that the carbon chain based molecular structures change as the wine ages. These changes produce the flavors and aromas we recognize in the wine we consume. The changes in the molecules are produced by chemical reactions that rely on oxygen. Carbon chains grow, change, split, and are constructed using oxygen atoms. Without the oxygen not only do the desirable reactions not take place but adverse changes can occur, which can develop off flavors and aromas in the wine and, in fact, ill health affects. Oxygen is key.

Like so many things in life, oxygen in wine is good in small doses and bad in large doses. The same oxygen that can create a memorable experience in a well-aged wine can also make a wine lipid, dead and cooked tasting, commonly referred to as “oxidized”. A properly aged wine has had a very slow and measured introduction of oxygen. It take time and the right conditions to work property and predictably. This is why, at Deerfield, we still use cork as a stopper. The cork breaths, a few molecules of air at a slow rate into the wine. Without it, the wine in the bottle will not improve but it will die. Winemakers like to control the rate of oxygen uptake. In the bottle we do this by the density and the length of the cork. However, this is not a lot of control. We have much more control over this process in the barrel than we do in the bottle.

Barrels breath too. It’s kind of like Velcro, that magic material that transmits water in only one direction. The barrel stave because of the liquid seal on the inside produced by the wine, transmits air (oxygen) one-way as well. The wood also allows some of the alcohol molecules and a bit of water, which are lightweight, to escape through the wood to the outside. This causes a reduction in the overall volume of the wine, a slight reduction in alcohol and a concentration of the flavors in the wine because all those minute solids that make up the flavor are too large to pass through the wood. In the barrel, the winemaker can monitor and taste the wine, sometimes stir it, move it to different barrels, change the conditions or keep them stable all to better control the slow uptake of oxygen and the concentration of the flavors, to better age the wine.

There are two caveats. The first is that the wine and the barrel need to be clean and stabile and free of pathogens and defects. This cannot be taken lightly. Barrels are made of wood and can become easily contaminated. Wine is alive and breathing and it loves to grow things in it that don’t belong. It takes great effort and constant attention by the winemakers to keep the wine healthy in the barrel and it needs to be healthy in order to age properly. The second caveat is that all this takes time. What is easier and less involved is to do what most wineries do, bottle and release the wine just as soon as you can. Deerfield marches to a different drummer. Our focus has always been on producing the very best wine available anywhere, and then keep studying ways to make it better. We think you can taste the difference and we know you can feel the affects, or lack thereof.

All this effort to make the best wine also includes making wine that is good for you. We learned that the wine needed to be clean and stable in order to age a long time in the barrel. This pursuit of cleanliness and stability produced exciting and unexpected results. We found our wine didn’t produce headaches, hangovers or allergic reactions. Information on this is available on our website. The extended barrel aging also seems to affect histamine levels. We think (we are still studying this) this is because what histamines are produced combine with other elements in the wine that render them nonreactive.

So, what’s the real reason we age our wines longer in the barrel? It makes better wine. It give you the consumer all the benefits of wine that is properly aged. Our fans don’t need a big cellar and a fat pocketbook. We are aging the wine for them, and in a better way than they can do it themselves. Our fans and our wine club members know the difference and are willing to pay a higher price for our properly aged wine. They become very loyal to the brand, not only because the wines are delicious; they are clean, produce no headaches or allergic reactions. Our motto is, “Clean wine, clear head.”