E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazing wide range of favorites, ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wines. Gallo also makes award-winning spirits (but, you know, this is a wine podcast…). So whether you’re new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. We look forward to serving you enjoyment in moments that matter. Cheers!
On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers takes on questions from listeners. How does the pH of a wine relate to its acidity? What is the difference between flawed wines and bottles with intentional flaws, like some natural wines? And what are some popular hybrids coming out of the United States right now? Tune in to learn more.
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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. Adam Teeter, CEO of VinePair, and I went to Sonoma and Napa for a week and what did I come back with? A bobblehead of Agoston Haraszthy.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. How are you doing? Here we are, another listener episode. You guys have burning questions. I have… burning answers? I’m going to answer some of your questions. I couldn’t get to all of them, but I’m going to get to some of them. Let’s do it.
OK, wine lovers. I’ve had a couple of shots of espresso, and I’m going to get to some of these listener questions. I always dig what you guys come up with, and you come up with a lot of them. But we only get 20 minutes or so in this podcast episode, so I’m going to get to the ones I can get to, and then we’re going to go from there. And then we’re going to move on to other subjects and other episodes and learn more and more as we keep going. We’ve been doing this podcast for a while now, a couple of seasons, but there’s always still something to learn. So let’s dive into these questions and see if we can learn something new every day. Am I acting weird? I’m having fun.
I’m just going to mash some of these together. I had a question about acidity, more questions about acidity, and a question about pH. They kind of go together. The question was basically, “What is pH? I know it has something to do with hydrogen ions, but I’m really confused about what’s going on.” I believe pH does deserve an entire episode. Let’s just give a little generalized thing here so you can walk away with a little nugget of knowledge. When you look up “pH” in the “Oxford Wine Companion,” the first sentence kind of wraps this whole thing up. pH is a measurement of the concentration of effective acidity in a solution. So there’s your pH and your acidity all in one sentence. But what does pH mean and what does it have to do with acidity? Let’s do this quickly. That sentence is clear when you understand what the “p” and the “H” are for. The lowercase “p” is the word “potenz.” It’s a German word for power or concentration. And the “H” is for hydrogen. So pH is the concentration or power of the hydrogen in general, and that pH is represented on a scale. And that scale is called a negative logarithm. That scale goes from zero to 14 — 14 being what’s called alkaline, meaning there is not a lot of power or concentration of hydrogen ions in that part of the scale. So it’s alkaline. From 14, we go negatively down to zero. As we get down to zero, there’s more concentrations of hydrogen ions, the more the perception of acidity. For example, right in the middle of the pH scale at seven, is water or blood. From there, things get more acidic. At six, you have milk, at five you have black coffee, two you have lemon juice, and when we get to zero, it’s battery acid. You noticed how I skip three and four right there? Well, at three and four, that’s wine. So wine is acidic. It’s below the seven mark in the pH scale, and it usually lives right there between three and four.
There’s a lot of factors in wine. The pH of the soil in which the vines grow is important. The pH that’s in the resulting wine is important. But in general, when you have a higher concentration of hydrogen ion activity in the lower, more acidic side of the scale, that high concentration of hydrogen ions forces what’s called pigment molecules to form in a positive charge. And that retains color and vibrancy in wine. Basically, pH is the activity of hydrogen ion activity in the solution. If there is a high hydrogen ion activity in a solution, it is at a lower pH. Meaning that in that solution, hydrogen ions are emitting a positive charge. And that positive charge brightens up color in wine, gives you a sense of refreshment in the wine with acidity, and helps that wine actually retain its color and vibrancy for quite some time. That is what pH does. For example, red wine made from the Gamay grape clocks in at about 3.4 on the pH scale, so it has a nicely high concentration of hydrogen ion activity. A Zinfandel is 3.7 or more. What’s happening there is it has less of a positive charge of hydrogen ion activity. Yes, there is acidity in Zinfandel, but there is less so than there is in a Gamay. Therefore, that hold of color is going to be deeper than in the Gamay. Another way of looking at it — a very simple way of looking at it — is that red wine will always or often have a higher pH than white wine. So white wine has a lower pH. That means it has more perception of acidity and it holds its color. Red wine will always have a little bit more but will also be within that 3.3 or 3.4 position in the scale for it to retain its brightness as well. There are also other factors like potassium in the soil and how that affects pH. But if we do an episode that dives deeper into, I will go into all. It’s a very fascinating part of the wine world. It’s actually one of the most important elements in winemaking, in wine itself as a physical thing. For a fun fact, within that three and four on the scale, we’ll get grapefruit juice, we get OJ, apples. All the famous sodas like Dr. Pepper, Coke, 7Up, Pepsi. Beer is in there, tomato juice and, oddly enough, acid rain. That’s a weird one, but it’s there.
Next, somebody asked about red wine and how sometimes it tastes carbonated or fizzy when it’s not supposed to. Is that bad, and can it be prevented? Well, nothing in wine is really bad. I mean, it is. There are things that can spoil what a winemaker was looking to achieve. If you go back and listen to the wine flaws episode, I go into a lot of that. We’re currently in what’s being called a “natural wine movement,” where there is a new style of wine coming onto the market that is not about the varieties in which the wine is made. It’s about the spoilage yeast and other exposures to oxygen used in the winemaking process. And at times, these spoilage yeasts create volatile acidity and all this stuff that is often considered a flaw in wine. But because we have this natural wine movement now, the flaws in wine like the smells of mouse and Band-Aid and the little fizzy stuff in red wine that usually isn’t supposed to be there, is being embraced in this new subcategory of wine. If you’re into natural wine, you’re kind of looking for those flaws. You’re looking for Brettanomyces to attack the wine. You’re looking for oxygen to overoxidize the wine a little bit, because you’re this “low- intervention” thing. You’re just letting the wine “make itself.” I keep saying quote unquote because it doesn’t really do that. But you’re trying to achieve this sort of natural winemaking thing.
There used to be something called dirty winemaking, but not anymore, because of the natural wine movement. So what’s happening is, if it’s unintentional, then it’s a mistake. What happened was that something interfered with the winemaking process in that too much oxygen got into the wine. Or that this spoilage called Brettanomyces continued to eat the sugar after the beneficial yeast was dead or rendered impotent and kept on eating sugar and emitting carbon dioxide, reducing the level of sugar in the wine. Also, if a wine wasn’t racked and filtered and still had some yeast in it when it was bottled — for this low-intervention stuff that’s very popular — then those little yeast cells could have done a small bit of second fermentation in the bottle. So when you drink it, there’s a slight fizziness to it. Again, this was once considered a flaw. If a winemaker does it accidentally, they’ll let you know. But it is now an entire new category of wine called natural wine. What I think is happening now is that the natural wine thing has become so popular. It’s heavily inventoried in our urban centers of this country. If you’re ordering a Syrah and you think you’re going to get what Syrah gives you — that peppery, earthy awesomeness — and it smells like Band-Aids and it’s a little bit fizzy and it’s not right, you could either be drinking a flawed wine that was accidentally flawed or you could be drinking an intentionally flawed wine that is now called natural wine. It’s a little bit complicated out there. But if you get that fizziness and that weirdness, that’s what it is. It’s a slight flaw in winemaking or an intentional flaw in winemaking. I know, it’s confusing.
The next question I really liked was about decanting. A listener on Instagram was like, “We’re having a fight over decanting. Can you decant in anything, including plastic?” And I was like, “Oh, wow, that’s a good question.” We have a whole decanting episode here, but you can decant wine in anything. Whatever helps a wine breathe and get exposure to oxygen is fine. The only thing about a plastic vessel with wine, is that plastic has the ability to retain pigments and other bacteria in the plastic. So if you’re using a plastic container to decant, it has to be a certain kind of clear plastic. You’ll see that with the popular plastic stemless wine glasses out there. There’s a company called Govino, and they have a decanter that’s plastic and it’s a clear plastic and it’s smooth and it doesn’t really retain all that junk and it actually can be washed in the dishwasher. It’s pretty awesome. So ideally, you want glass. But in a pinch, if you have a plastic container and you need to decant a wine, it’s no problem.
Next, I got a few questions about hybrids. Specifically, there’s been a lot of talk recently in the wine world about varieties other than the most popular ones that we know that have the ability to survive in certain areas better than these popular varieties. Maybe we should be celebrating those more than Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. This is specifically for the U.S. Well, we have them. They’re called hybrids, and they’ve been around for a long time. I have a whole three-part series on the history of American wine, which mentions hybrids. And I also have an episode on the phylloxera epidemic. Hybrids are awesome. The only issue with hybrids throughout history is that it had this particular compound in it that gave off this foxy, animal pelt pheromone-like smell that was a little bit too unctuous and took away from the fruit the variety was trying to give. What a hybrid is, is it’s the offspring of two varieties of two different species. This is going all the way back to Season 1. We talk about Vitis vinifera, the genus is Vitis. And under Vitis, you have Vitis vinifera, which is the European variety. And there’s a few others. Then you have a bunch of Vitis that are native to the United States, and it’s called an interspecific hybrid. This is often confused with something called a cross, which is the same thing, but with vines within the same species. If a Vitis vinifera vine and a Vitis labrusca vine had an offspring, that would be a hybrid. If a European vine like Pinot Noir crossed with another Vitis vinifera like Gouais Blanc — this goes back to our Pinot Noir episode — and creates something like Chardonnay, that is what is called a cross or intraspecific. Over time there have been a few hybrids that we use today, because they don’t have that foxiness to them and they actually produce wine that our former European palates still can enjoy. There’s a whole bunch of hybrids out there, but there were three that I was asked about. One is called Chambourcin, and one is called Vignoles. The other one’s called Norton, but that’s a different story.
Chambourcin is very popular in the United States, specifically in the Northeast. You’re going to see it being done in Vermont and Virginia. But more importantly, the first AVA to ever be awarded to the United States before Napa was Augusta, Mo. Here is where a lot of these hybrids actually thrive. Chambourcin was originally from the Loire Valley, and it’s a very aromatic wine. It can be vinified like a regular wine, or it can go through something called carbonic maceration, which we’ll get into at some point. It can be a very fun wine. It has good acidity to it, but it has a deep, dark color. It’s very aromatic. It’s a very fun, funky wine. It was kind of a big deal in France in the ’70s. Here in the eastern part of the United States, it thrives, because it can handle hot, wet weather. But it’s also very winter-hardy, which is why it thrives in Missouri.
The other hybrid that’s working really well in America is a white hybrid called Vignoles. This one’s pretty exciting because it was built to, well, it wasn’t built for the climates in the United States, but it does very well here. It buds late and ripens early, just in time to miss all the frosts. It does well in cool climates and makes clean, not neutral, but very refreshing white wine. What’s really interesting about Vignoles is that it is very susceptible to Botrytis cinerea, otherwise known as noble rot. That fungus and rot is very famous in the area of Sauternes in Bordeaux, making some of the most famous wines in the world called Sauternes. I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s just really cool that we have our own variety. In Sauternes, it’s Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and some other varieties. But here, we have this Vignoles that actually does the work for us in the United States. Again, Missouri is where it’s very popular. Thirteen percent of all the vines in Missouri are Vignoles. The Augusta AVA in Missouri is part of the Ozark Mountain AVA. If you ever get a chance, go to that world and try what they’re doing there. Find some sweet Vignoles.
Then there’s the crazy Norton variety, the red variety named after Dr. D. Norton. Or should I say, Dr. Daniel Norborne Norton? He was a physician and horticulturalist just outside of Richmond, Va., he discovered this grape in the early 1800s, and he promoted it as a wine grape. This is at a time when people were doing a lot of table grapes. But if you listen to the American wine history series, everyone’s always trying to find a grape to make good wine from. The origin of the grape is pretty murky. DNA profiling has shown that it does have Vitis aestivalis, which is an American vine species, and vinifera in its pedigree. This grape can make great wine, and it does. There are places in Virginia and especially, again, in Missouri — and specifically in the Augusta AVA — where it’s done very well. There’s a winery called Mount Pleasant Winery, and they sent me a Norton. They actually sent me a Norton tasting stem, a glass that was specifically designed for that variety, kind of like what Regal does. And now that’s my tasting glass that I use. Wines from the Norton grape are deep and dark, almost fleshy, a little bit viscous, highly aromatic. There’s no foxy flavor. It takes on oak very well, and it can also be aged in stainless steel. It’s an awesome variety. It’s the oldest native American vine cultivated for wine here in the United States. I think Norton is something we should be looking for even more. Not a lot of it is made, and the distribution of it is tough. But if you go to Missouri, if you go to Virginia, if you’re in the Northeast, and you see Chambourcin, Vignole, or Norton, give it a go.
I have more questions, but I don’t have time. We’ve got to keep things short here at “Wine 101” because you’re on your commute or wherever you’re at, and you got stuff to do. If I didn’t get to your question, I’m sorry. But keep on sending questions in general so I can always see what you guys want to know, so I know what to teach. I love these listener episodes. I want to do more of them. But in the meantime, let’s get ready for next week because the next couple of episodes are going to get crazy. See you soon.
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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. 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.