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In this special episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers answers some questions from dedicated listeners. Explaining everything from how elevation affects wine to what the term “natural wine” really means, Beavers responds to his audience’s most burning wine questions.
Tune in to see if your question was answered!
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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and you haven’t had a sloppy Joe until you’ve had a New Jersey sloppy Joe, specifically from Town Hall Deli in South Orange.
What’s going on, wine lovers! Welcome to Episode 29 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. It’s Season 2, and how are you?
OK, guys. This is the listener episode. You guys sent questions in, and I’m going to answer the questions to the best of my ability. This is going to be fun. Let’s get into it.
We’ve never done this before. Of course, we are only in Season 2, but we didn’t do it in Season 1. Even though we talk about wine every week together and we’ve learned a lot in the past two seasons, we’re just at the end of Season 2. We definitely have more to learn, obviously. Yet I thought, right now, are there some burning questions you have for me here at “Wine 101?”
I put it out there and got a bunch of questions. I’m going to go ahead and just answer as many as I can in this short little time we have together in this episode of “Wine 101.” This is just me riffing, so let’s riff.
I don’t particularly like the “jammy” profile of many California Cabs. Which regions should I be avoiding, or is it more complicated than that?
The jamminess of wine — especially with Cabs because Cabernet Sauvignon really wants to be big, bold, structured, and peppery — it also really wants a little bit of Merlot to blend with it so it can soften a little bit because it’s a bit of an austere kind of wine. One way to do it would be, if you don’t like the jamminess of a California Cab, try to find California Cabernet Sauvignons that are not blended with anything else and actually have 100 percent Cab in them. That might give you what you’re looking for because Cab does have austerity to it. When it’s made well, a 100 percent Cab from Napa is incredible, structured, and not jammy.
However, if you’re just generally not down with the California sun and the jamminess of the varieties and maybe the Merlot and Syrah that is blended into them, try to find Cabernet Sauvignon from cooler wine regions. Washington State has some really nice, more lean, peppery-style yet structured Cabernet Sauvignon. You can also go to Bordeaux, but Bordeaux is going to be blended with Merlot or Cab Franc.
Now, these are general statements. If you do have a wine merchant that you trust, try to ask them about that saying, “Look, I don’t like the jammy Cabs. Help me out.” If you’re on your own and you don’t have a wine shop that you know and trust, this stuff might help.
What are some resources I can use to get the latest news about wine?
I’m just going to say it: VinePair, right? VinePair is the No. 1 source for wine news and education on the internet. I just gotta say it. We are built for you, the consumer. We don’t do pay to play. We have our own point system. I review all the wines. “Wine 101” is an extension of VinePair. It is part of the education at VinePair. We have amazing freelance writers that are reporting from all over the world, constantly updating the industry. We have in-house writers doing great jobs, writing great stuff about what’s going on in the wine world. We’re not a ticker tape-type thing, but we have all the info.
Where can I get my hands on an aged wine to try to know I like aged wine before I invest in a whole wine-aging setup?
It’s a little bit complicated and it can be pretty personal because what wines are you excited about that you want to age? If you listen to “Wine 101,” you know that not all the wines in the world age. The majority of the wines out there are for the here and now. There are places in the world that we’ve talked about in “Wine 101” that have age-worthy wines: Barolo, Barbaresco, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa, and other places like that. Where would you like to taste aged wine? Once you decide that, you may need some help from a wine merchant, but you buy a certain wine from a place you’d like to taste — a new vintage. Then, you invest in an older bottle of wine. It might be more expensive, but you’ll get a sense of how the wine ages. You’ll have a younger version and you’ll have an older version of it. It can be expensive, but the one place in the world where you can do this and not break the bank is Rioja. Rioja, for some reason, has older vintages often on the American market that are not that expensive. That might be the first place to try.
Do wines taste better when you have them in their country of origin, or is an imported bottle just as good?
I would say the latter. If a wine comes from somewhere else to the United States, it shouldn’t be any different, because the winemaker made the wine in a certain way and that’s going to be the way you taste it in the United States. Now, bottles that do come from somewhere else to the United States have a bumpy journey, and sometimes they need to rest before they are released into the distribution because it gets jostled a little bit and has to settle. There’s also improper storage. If it’s stored in a bad place and it comes to you oxidized, that’s not the winemaker’s fault, it’s the distribution’s fault. There should not be a difference between the wine you taste in, let’s say, Barolo that you love so much and when you buy it at a local wine shop. It should, without vintage variation and minimal bottle variation, pretty much taste the same.
Is Franzia wine?
I love this question. Yes, Franzia is wine. Franzia is a company that buys bulk surplus wine or grapes, and mass-produces them into wine. The only reason why people don’t think it’s wine is because of the stigma of mass-production wine. It doesn’t matter because if you like it, you like it, and if you don’t, you don’t. The one thing about Franzia — and the reason why people mess with a little bit — is when you’re making a wine from a grape, the higher the production rate, the less complexity you get from the wine because you’re dealing with just so many hectoliters per liter, you’re not getting any complexities. That’s what it is. When you’re buying a wine that’s mass-produced, it’s not about complexity, it’s about everyday enjoyment. So, Franzia is wine.
What is your go-to wine for a weeknight anniversary or double date?
For a weeknight, personally, I just want a young wine. A young white, a young red, or something that’s made to drink now that hasn’t been aging. If it’s in the summer, I’m going to chill it down. I want it to be high-acid red. If it’s winter, I want it to have a little more depth to it. It also depends on what I’m cooking, right? For an anniversary, I’m going to level up like Ciara. I’m going to open a wine that needs time to develop as we have our anniversary dinner. When you’re hanging out with your significant other with a nice, aged bottle of wine, the oxygen is just layering and layering that wine. Then, the wine is leveling up while you’re talking, and it just jives with the whole idea of an anniversary. You’ve been together for this many years, and then there’s this nice vintage wine and it’s opening up as we talk. It’s romantic, right? For a double date, I would definitely make sure the wine was young and low in alcohol because you just want to have fun. I would like to have a Grüner Veltliner screw cap, nice and fun. Sauvignon Blanc, a chilled Gamay, or a fun Pinot Noir. Mainly, something with low alcohol that’s good for social vibes. You know what I mean?
Is it worth it for me, a wine novice, to own a copy of Jedi Wine Master Jancis Robinson’s “Wine Grapes,” or is there another book or site you would recommend first?
OK, so wine literature? That’s everywhere. There are so many books out there, but “Wine Grapes,” the book that Jancis and Hugh did, and the “Oxford Wine Companion” are very expensive books and they are deep and wide. You can go down rabbit holes, and you know that I love doing that because I’m here to teach you guys about wine. Those are my primary sources of information, and I can just branch out from there. If that’s what you want to do and you want to get deep and start there, you should definitely go for it. However, they are going to be monetary investments. They’re expensive books. Hopefully, I’m helping here because this is a nice 20 minutes at a time, giving you little nuggets of information you can use. VinePair, of course, again, I have to recommend. We are a great source for wine education and wine information. There are also some books out there to get you started. “The Wine Bible “is a very good, absolute beginning point. It was written by Karen MacNeil, and she updates it all the time. It’s the first reference guide that I ever had in wine, and I always recommend that to start.
How do I find people who care as much as I do about wine, and how do I avoid the snobs?
I love this question because I felt this in the beginning when I started in wine. As a “Star Wars” fan, it’s hard to find people that I can really geek out about “Star Wars” with. Anyway, I digress. I thought about this a lot. I had a local wine shop, and I think this might be the solution or one of them — but I don’t know, this one feels right. If you have a local wine shop that you trust — a place you’ve been going to where the people that work there help you out — and they have weekly wine tastings, go to those weekly wine tastings. Talk to the people at the shop and talk to the people that are tasting along with you because those people are in your community. If those people are going to a wine shop for a tasting just like you are, they might have the same interests that you do and you can network through there and start a tasting group. Or you can even suggest to the wine shop to do one or see if the wine shop does a tasting group as well. That way, you can inject yourself into the people in your community that are really passionate about wine. To avoid snobs, it’s very easy. If you’re talking to somebody, and you feel they’re snobbing out, don’t listen to them.
How can I level up my nose? I can smell basic things, but it’s hard to place a name on many things.
OK, this goes back to Season 1, but I’m happy to revisit this. Your brain and nose in a glass of wine is a personal experience, right? The whole idea of wine is it’s this beautiful natural phenomenon that gives off all these wacky aromas. Some of the aromas are classic and are tied to certain varieties such as Pinot Noir with cherries and mushrooms. With Merlot, it is sometimes blueberries. Beyond that, it can get subtle, especially as wine ages and goes into the tertiary aromas, which I talked about in Season 1. A lot of people in our industry will tell consumers to go to the produce section of a supermarket or a farmer’s market and buy a bunch of fruits and vegetables, cut them up, stick them in your nose, smell them, and then you will have a sense of different vegetables and fruits that you get in wine. I have never done that.
When I was coming up in wine, I had my way of doing it. However, you can do that and it works. Once you smell something, it’s in your mind. For example, a particular white wine has a scent or has a hint of sweet corn because you smelled it and it’s real. For me, it stressed me out doing all that. It was a lot of work, and I just wanted to enjoy wine. So what I do and what I’ve done throughout my entire career, is just sip, enjoy, and smell. If I try to draw something from the wine, it’s right or it’s wrong, but it’s something that I smell.
I also enjoy the power of suggestion. If someone says a wine smells like something and I didn’t know that until they said it I would say, “Oh, cool, it does smell that way.” It’s never a competition. Wine should be enjoyed. If you want to level up your nose, you can do some work and go to the produce market and do it that way, or you can just continue to enjoy wine. Then, if you experience different aromas in your life and you experience them in wine, awesome. But what it really comes down to is enjoying the wine.
Why is extra dry sparkling wine sweet, and dry still wine is not?
I get into this in the sparkling wine episode, but the term “extra dry” is part of a dosage regime that is pretty much globally agreed upon. To say “extra dry” in a sparkling wine means there is an addition of 12 to 17 grams of sugar per liter added to the wine. Even though it’s going to be a little bit sweeter because of the addition of this sugar syrup, it’s still going to be drier than the even sweeter levels beyond it. It’s confusing, but I go over it in the sparkling wine episode. When a still wine is considered dry, what that means is that there are drying effects on the palate from the wine. So sometimes if the wine has a higher acid and not enough fruit, it’s going to be drying. If a wine has a lot of tannin, it’s going to be drying, and what’s happening is your palate is perceiving more drying perceptions than anything else. Therefore, you perceive that wine to be dry, so that’s how that works.
What is the effect of elevation on wine?
This is a very awesome question with a complicated answer. I hope to have an episode that involves this at some point because it’s complicated but there are some generalities you can pull from elevation. The higher the elevation, the poorer the soil. If there are hills and mountains with runoff, you’re not going to have a lot of vegetation up there. You’re already going to have harsh soils, and because of the elevation, it’s going to be a little bit cooler, so the vines are going to do what they want to do. It is going to be in the harsh soils, which it wants. It’s going to be a cooler situation, so you’re going to get more acidity, hopefully, in your variety during the growing season. Also, you are up in a higher elevation, so you have a ton of sun exposure, more so than you would down in the valley. At a higher elevation, there is a more moderating sun exposure than in the valley, where there is more fertile soil and more competition for the vine. That’s a quick riff, but at some point, we’re going to dig deep into the soil on that one.
What is natural wine?
OK, there is no official definition for natural wine. Everybody has their own thing about natural wine and what they think is a natural wine, but because the trend is so intense and because it has gained such exposure and popularity, there’s a style emerging from this trend. But there is no such thing as “natural wine.” It doesn’t make any sense because wine is natural. Fermentation is nature — it’s all-natural. There’s an article written recently by Jamie Goode for VinePair. He’s from the U.K., and he wrote an article called “Are We Entering a Post-Natural Wine Era?” He talks about witnessing the emergence of this trend in France where these wine bars are being supplied by these winemakers that were making wine in a style that was using pre-modern wine techniques and technology in that they were throwing it all to chance. They thought, “Let’s see if we can make a wine with the least intervention we can.”
In the vineyard, you let your vines grow with weeds, and then in the winery, you allow whatever yeast is in the air to eventually make its way into the vat and start the fermentation process, whether it takes a day, a week, or two weeks or a month. In addition to that, no matter how long it takes for that to start, we will not shock anything with CO2. That’s just not going to happen. So if there are Brettanomyces in the vat, then so be it. It’ll be there when we put it into the barrel. If there are Brettanomyces in the barrel, so be it. It’ll be there when we do it. This wine is being made with the lowest intervention possible, and this is considered as natural a wine as it can be.
The result is a wine that is infected with things like Brettanomyces and volatile acidity and other bacteria. As I said in the wine faults episode, we know what Brettanomyces does after the beneficial yeast dies. It keeps on eating the sugar, reduces the fruit level of the wine even more, and adds these compounds that give smoke and mouse pelt and all these other aromas to a wine. Whether the wine is made from Pinot Noir, Merlot, or a Cab Franc, these compounds are going to exist. A Pinot Noir made like this is going to have smoke and mouse pelt. A Merlot made like this is going to have smoke and mouse pelt because we’re not protecting the wine. We’re letting the wine battle on its own, and in that way, people consider that natural.
We have certifications like the organic certification or the Demeter certification for biodynamic practices, which is a whole episode we could get into. Those are there to help winemakers make wine in a more natural way while still maintaining the varietal character of the wine. If you see organic or biodynamic — it’s called Demeter certification for biodynamic — and the wine tastes like regular wine, you know that the wine was made sustainably, but the winemaker tried to maintain the inherent characteristics of the varieties which they’re making the wine from. In the “natural wine community,” they go beyond all that. They say, “Look, we’re going to just let this wine exist and make itself. Whatever happens, happens. Then, we’re going to bottle it and we’re going to give it to you. We’re going to tell you that it is as natural a wine as has ever been made.”
Now the thing is, Franzia is wine. “Natural wine” is also wine. When grapes are crushed and fermented, they become wine. It’s up to us humans or winemakers to decide what they want to do. Do they want to protect the winemaking process, or do they want the winemaking process to survive on its own and see what comes of it? That latter one is what is becoming known as “natural wine.” This trend has evolved, morphed, and mutated in different ways, so it’s always going to change. Every time you ask somebody about natural wine, they’re going to tell you something different. However, this is what I see as the emerging trend.
Well, that was a lot of riffing. I hope that was enjoyable. I had fun doing it, and I hope you guys had fun, too. And guys, next week is the season finale of Season 2. Wow. See you guys next week.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcast from. It really helps get the word out there. And now for some totally awesome credits.
“Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, a big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.