GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Don’t miss the extraordinary tale, a GenevaLunch.com feature, of how the “1895″ wine yeast that made headlines in 2008 has moved from a 113 year old bottle to the world stage, where it will be marketed in 2013.
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Drones are the rage and have been for a while in the US and Australia, for learning more about vineyards at the micro level, a report done by the BBC says, but now wine grape growers are turning to newer tools such as microspectural cameras that rapidly provide data which can be analyzed by computer.
The new tools, David Green, a specialist at the University of Aberdeen told the BBC, could replace traditional ones such as soil sampling.
Soil sampling is just one part, however, of multilayered efforts to finetune our knowledge of vineyards. The federal research station at Changins, in canton Vaud, working with the EPFL in Lausanne and then Valais growers starting in 2000, with Valais growers, has been creating detailed pictures of the cantons’ terroirs. To draw up the maps and provide detailed information researchers in Valais, for example, 3,500 “observations” and 450 profiles were needed to study 5,000 hectares of vines: their soil, geology, climate, slope and exposure.
Given the databases that now exists, new technology, including thermal cameras, might be affordable even for vineyards that don’t operate on the scale of the huge New World ones.
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – This is almost as bad as getting an e-mail saying you’ve lost your job. Those of us who thoroughly enjoy tasting and judging wines at international competitions were in for a shock this morning when the Swiss government’s federal research station at Waedenswil announced dire news.
The electronic nose it’s been testing, called SMart Nose, is giving positive results.
They tried to tell us gently by using the somewhat off-putting example of spinach juice (you read that right), pointing out that consumers won’t buy something unfamiliar or strange-smelling to them, so industry must use “noses”, professionals with a good sense of smell who use precise sensorial analyses, to determine what works and what doesn’t.
The idea is to help development new products while also checking on existing products.
The food industry, with large-scale production, spends a good deal of money using human noses for this work.
But the research station has been using the new SMart Nose, developed by Swiss company VOCScan AG, to test spinach juice. The idea behind the tests is that spinach has a number of nutritious qualities and should be used in fruit juice, but first its positive smell elements need to be identified. And this the SMart Nose was able to do remarkably well, just like a well-trained human nose.
In theory, then, verifying the technical aspects of a fine bottle of Pinot Noir and qualifying these, as well as being able to describe the nose, could be done by a machine.
Out the window with excellent descriptions from writers such as Wine Anorak: “Wonderfully intense nose of cherries, herbs and dark chocolate” or “Intense nose showing vibrant cherry fruit with rich savoury herbal undertones; quite complex” for two New Zeland wines.
But wait, it looks like SMart Nose is still in the early days of his training, so maybe we’ll all just get early retirement offers. Waedenswil ends by noting that “each sample provides a kind of digital print. Statistical methods then make it possible to create groups of samples with similar aromatic profiles. To validate the method, these groups of samaple are then compared to the results of sensory tests done by flesh and blood tasters”
Meanwhile, wine continues to offer us much more than just a great nose.
There’s the appearance, its visual aspects, and the palate, not to mention the harder to quantify business of pleasure and conviviality. And the story behind each bottle, and the glory of the vines in November.
To your very good health, and to ours, the wine writers, still hard at work.
BERN, SWITZERLAND – The headline from Bern, “25 years of sexual confusion in Switzerland” is a clear winner for waking up editors, but those in the world of wine will be less surprised than others: sexual confusion aimed at grapevine pests has significantly reduced the use of chemical insecticides.
The sexual confusion method used by wine grape and other fruit growers to fight their main ravagers was put into use in 1986 and today it’s used by nearly 60 percent of grape growers and more than 50 percent of other growers, in particular berry and orchard farmers, to good effect.
Switzerland has become the world leader for using this method to fight fruit pests, in terms of the percentage of planted surface area that employs it.
The principle behind it is simple: large quantities of pheromone, the female sexual hormone of the pests, is diffused throughout the fruit-growing area, and the males, overwhelmed by the presence everywhere of this naturally produced hormone, fail to find and fertilize the females. The number of ravagers is, as a result, greatly reduced.
The method is precisely targeted at specific pests so remains completely inoffensive to other creatures and plants.
The federal research station, Agroscope Changins-Wädenswil ACW, reports that the method has proved efficient after 25 years, with vineyards that diffuse nematode (a grapevine worm) pheromones having a far smaller number of the pests than vineyards that use chemical insecticides. Nematodes have become increasingly resistant to insecticides.
The hormonal pest-fighting approach initially ran into some difficulties because the system was relatively expensive and there were problems installing it, but over time the cost has gone down and the system has been simplified. Today, walking through grapevines in Vaud and Valais in particular, you can quickly spot the small containers at the ends of vines. The federal research station says it is now working on biodegradable products that will be yet cheaper and easy to set up.
French-speaking Switzerland’s vineyards, the largest wine grape growing area in the country, has virtually entirely converted to the sexual confusion method.
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Even the best winemakers’ products are occasionally corked. If you’re uncertain, leave the wine for a few minutes: it might just need to open. But if you suspect it is corked, or you’re sure it is: don’t drink it. Corked wine is likely to provide a headache and an unpleasant drinking and dining experience.
And don’t keep sniffing it to check, because your tolerance level for that corked smell rises with each sniff. Even your dog running in from a swim in the summer pond will smell all right after this!
Don’t panic, either, if you have a wine snob at the table and you’re not sure. Ask his or her advice and if the verdict is “corked!” but you don’t believe it, stopper the bottle and check it out again yourself, later. The smell won’t disappear and you’ll learn from it.
Serve another wine if you have one handy.
In Switzerland, you can get your money back
The good news is that if the wine has been bottled in Switzerland, you can get your money back. Here’s the law covering it:
(art. 197 and following CO 10 June 1988) “Swiss and foreign wines that are bottled in Switzerland will be replaced or reimbursed during one year starting from the delivery date. Foreign wines that are bottled in their country of production will not be reimbursed.”
Be sure to keep the receipt, which shows the date. But most winemakers will take back their own goods without question, as long as it is in the original container. If you drank a glass while you were trying to determine if there is something wrong, don’t worry: the producer will immediately spot the problem, if there is one, or won’t ask, in the interest of good customer relations.
You’ll have to pay for the shipping or the trip to the winery. If this seems like too much hassle, write it off to experience and have one last quick sniff of the wine to register the smell in your memory.
The knowledge of what “corked” smells like is gained the same way we learn all other smells. We learn to recognize and identify them over time, thanks to our memories. This is why wine experts are often found sniffing fruits and vegetables in the supermarket produce section! I have trouble distinguishing rose from pear smells, strange as that might seem, so I routinely smell pears at the store to improve my memory of them. I blame it on a childhood of canned-only pears, which smell more of syrup than the fruit.
Will corked wines hurt you?
No, they are just unpleasant.
Are corked wines a sign of a lower quality?
Not at all: it happens to even the greatest wines. I recently interviewed a wine expert from Sotheby’s following an auction where wines that cost hundreds of Swiss francs were sold and I asked what he would think if he paid such a price and then discovered the wine was corked. “My bad luck!”
Has a corked wine been mishandled during vinification?
No. The presence of TCA or other tainting factors can be due to a number of factors that are often beyond the control of even the most hygienic producers.
Will sniffing the cork tell me if the wine is off?
Sometimes but not necessarily. If a wine is well and truly corked, the cork itself may carry the unpleasant odour, but if the wine is a bit corked, enough to ruin an otherwise good wine, its presence in the cork might be too subtle to detect. Corked wines are more obvious as wines warm up, and in the glass, where the smell opens up.
So should we avoid wines with corks and buy screwcap wines?
That’s a whole different matter, and the debate is long over about whether quality wines can have screwcap tops (the answer is a resounding yes), but many of us sometimes enjoy the ceremonial side to drinking wine, where we unscrew real cork from an elegant bottle. Viva the cork!
More on corked wines:
- Jancis Robinson on serving a corked wine to one of the world’s top sommeliers
- NY Mag on what to do when served a corked wine in a restaurant
Australians take advantage of nuclear fallout
Brits and French prefer to shoot ion beams from particle accelerator
Update 17:35 Australian researchers have succeeded, after 11 years of research and several hundred bottles of wine, in coming up with a new carbon-dating method to check the real age of vintage wines. It’s not cheap, but the team that did the research at the University of Adelaide says fraud accounts for about five percent of all expensive vintage wines, and with auctions pushing up the prices to nearly undrinkabe levels, investors want to be sure they are not buying fakes.
One of the researchers, Graham Jones, reported the team’s findings at the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting in California Saturday 21 March.
Jones and his colleagues found that radioactive carbon dioxide produced from atomic bomb tests in the atmosphere absorbed by grapes can be used to accurately determine wine vintages. “The new technique is similar to radio-carbon dating, used for years to estimate the age of prehistoric objects.
“It works by comparing the amount of carbon-14 (C-14), a less common form of atmospheric carbon, to carbon-12 (C-12), which is more stable and abundant. The ratio of these two carbon forms, or isotopes, has remained constant in the atmosphere for thousands of years,” says the ACS in its press release.
C-12 and C-14 are, captured by grapevines when they absorb .
Jones told GenevaLunch that “the thrust behind the method is that it is different to carbon dating which relies upon radioactive decay of 14C. The bomb pulse method uses dilution of 14C and is much more accurate for the peroid specified.”
Jones told the ACS meeting that “until the late 1940s all carbon-14 in the Earth’s biosphere was produced by the interaction between cosmic rays and nitrogen in the upper atmosphere. This changed in the late 1940s, up to 1963 when atmospheric atomic explosions significantly increased the amount of C-14 in the atmosphere. When the tests stopped in 1963 a clock was set ticking – that of the dilution of this ‘bomb-pulse’ C-14 by CO2 formed by the burning of fossil fuels.”
He explains that traces of radioactive carbon are captured by the grape plants through the absorption of carbon dioxide and eventually transformed into alcohol and other carbon-based components of the wine. The “bomb-pulse” of the atmosphere is eventually absorbed into the wine.
“The year that the grapes were grown fixes the age or vintage of the wine,” Jones says. “The carbon-14 isotope ratio of the wine alcohol can therefore be used to determine the vintage of a wine.”
The researchers used an accelerator mass spectrometer to determine the C-14 levels in the alcohol components of 20 Australian red wines with vintages from 1958 to 1997. They then compared these measurements to the radioactivity levels of known atmospheric samples. They found that the method could reliably determine the vintage of wines to within the vintage year.
Jones argues that measuring the age of other wine components such as tartaric acid and some phenolic substances can help improve the reliability of the technique to detect fraud.
“Wine also is a reservoir of environmental data which will complement the results from trees,” the team said in 1999, when they began their research project. The initial results were publishedin 2004.
The university of Adelaide noted in a 1999 press release that “The scientists plan to extract that data from vintage wine series supplied by some of Australia’s leading producers.”
A tough job – all in the interest of science, of course.
The particle accelerator solution
Meanwhile a British firm, the Antique Wine Company in London, which specializes in costly vintage wines, teamed up in 2008 with the National Centre for Scientific Research in Bordeaux, France to develop a fraud-detection system that shoots ion beams from a particle accelerator, comparing the bottle tested with a baseline of wines from the same producer.
The business of wine authentication is clearly taking a scientific turn, which the particle accelerator specialists at Cern in Geneva might like to explore with nearby wine producers in France and Switzerland. Fortunately for those of us limited to checking the quality of our wines by tasting them, no one is yet turning up his nose at this traditional approach.
For some reason I always thought only restaurants used something to stop wine drips, until I had one too many drops of red wine on our wooden table. I used coasters, plates, and on bad days, the handiest magazine or newspaper.
When I was in Kathy Meinen’s shop in Satigny I spotted packets of foil drop stops that you roll up and slip into the bottle top, which I had recently noticed a winemaker using. They’re an inexpensive solution, under CHF5 for two, and of course once I bought them I noticed them for sale everywhere, so perhaps I’m the only wine drinker who kept sanding her wooden table to get rid of wine drips.
A word of warning: if you don’t slip it far enough into the bottle neck the wine pours out in a large arc and you’re likely to overshoot the glass, so pour the first one slowly until you’re used to it.
I have mixed reactions when I read in the space of a minute that a) there are things in red wine that are good for me (hooray!) and b) the chemical reaction is therefore going to be reproduced in a drug, to be put to wider user (oh no! but wait, that must be good for someone).
Some good things are happening in the space where wine and science come together: diabetics might be able to take advantage of wine research, Australians have broken the genetic code of wine yeasts and in Switzerland, a yeast that holds the key to wine’s goodness has been isolated in plants on one particular slope.
The latest bit of wine chemistry news came last week from EPFL, Lausanne’s polytechnic school, which says “a synthetic new chemical entity protects against diet-induced obesity, improves glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity and enhances exercise endurance by enhancing fat utilization in certain target tissues.” The report on the new “chemical entity” was published 5 November in Cell Metabolism, with EPFL professor Johan Auwerx, MD, leading the research study.
So what does it mean? The fact that some of the goodness in wine can now be taken out and repackaged pharmaceutically is good news for people who have not managed to overcome obesity through exercise and dietary management alone, among others. According to EPFL, “Reducing calorie consumption by about 20% has been shown to slow down the aging process, improve endurance and protect against diet-induced obesity and metabolic diseases such as diabetes. A year ago, researchers demonstrated that these metabolic benefits can also occur with large doses of resveratrol, a substance naturally occurring in red wine. Researchers hypothesized that these beneficial effects result from activation of SIRT1, an enzyme that is involved in regulating certain key cellular processes, notably the efficiency and number of mitochondria – the energy powerhouses of our cells.”
For wine drinkers, the Australian code-breaking news is important because it signals the start of tailor-made yeasts. Yeast is not just a key ingredient in wine, it holds the secret to controling the alchol level and flavour in wines. With winemakers everywhere worried about global warming raising the alcohol level unacceptably, this could be a real blessing.
My favourite bit of news comes from Changins, the federal wine research station, which in October baptized a yeast found on the slopes of the Wädenswil castle “Lalvin W15.” The unglamorous moniker was put on a yeast that Changin’s researchers say inhibits unwanted micro-organisms while encouraging the components in wine that are beneficial to health as well as to the structure of the wine. The yeast is one of some 150 commercial yeasts available to winemakers.
Great summer weather to some of us means a terrace or balcony or, better yet, sitting by the lakeside at the end of the day with a picnic, accompanied by a nice wine. And if the wine comes in a fun bottle and is also a good wine: all the better. Uvavins in Morges in 2007 started a line of blended wines that are worth checking out, called Uvanomine.
I came across my first one, Ambre, by accident. Most unusually for me I bought the wine for the odd bottle shape without knowing what was inside because it didn’t say. Instead, I was sent to the Internet to download software for my cell phone so I could zap the bottle’s barcode and find out more. Now that was intriguing. Uvavins is a Paleo partner and I liked the fact they were giving away Paleo tickets. I didn’t win.
The wine was good. My cell phone is too old for the barcode trick, so I checked out the web site. Another surprise: it’s in French, German and English. Notes of grapefruit, pineapple, orange blossom and peach, a crisp and dry white wine.
Uvavins is one of the big Lake Geneva region wine producers, based in Morges, a cooperative with more than 400 grape growers. It has a good reputation, especially for its top of the line wines. If you think cooperative means stodgy, you’re in for a surprise. The Uvanomine lineup, which has its own web site, comes in bottles specially designed by Geneva artist Roger Pfund and made by Vetropak in St Prex. Uvavins describes the bottles as a "challenge" for the glass recycling factory, one of Switzerland’s largest. The labels play on the colours used to name the wines.
I next tried Garance, with some trepidation because I was sure it was a Gamay blend and I am not a big fan of Gamay, largely because for many years too many Swiss winemakers made mediocre Dole wines with it. Dole is a blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir, with Pinot Noir more than 50%.
The result is a very pleasant wine, smooth, light enough for summer, with distinct notes of cherry and wild strawberry plus raspberry. The color is a deep rich red.
Paleo is a natural choice for a picnic spot this week if you’re lucky enough to have tickets. Otherwise, the Lake Geneva region is not short of great places to sit down and picnic, but here are some of my own favourites, outside Lausanne and Geneva, where city parks and ports give you many options:
- lakeside, St Prex, Places des Armes (take your portable barbecue), Versoix port (barbecues available)
- poolside, Morges and Nyons
- hilltop view and great for families, Signal de Bougy above Rolle
Photos: top, Ambre in the glass is pale, almost Champagne-like in colour, a refreshing summer wine that works well as an aperitif and with most foods. Centre, Roger Pfund’s unusual bottle design. Below, Garance is a wonderful deep red, but light and fruity without being sweet, making it a great companion for barbecues and other summer meals.
The Uvanomine wines are regional blends that change depending on the harvest: details on the web site for each vintage.
Available at Coop, Cidis (Uvavin’s commercial partner) in Tolochenaz near Medtronic, The Migro online store Le Shop.
Photos: top, Ambre in the glass is pale, almost Champagne-like in
colour, a refreshing summer wine that works well as an aperitif and
with most foods. Centre, Roger Pfund’s unusual bottle design. Below,
Garance is a wonderful deep red, but light and fruity without being
sweet, making it a great companion for barbecues and other summer meals. Look closely and you’ll see a world of billowing clouds and Alpine peaks in the glass: reflections of the best of a Swiss summer day.
Three years ago the wine world was startled by the arrival of glass corks, which promised to remove forever the problem of "corked" wine, whose smell and taste are unforgettably unpleasant. The new glass corks, called stoppers by manufacturer Alcoa, made the news, then little was heard about them after their 2004 debut. Some wine producers in Switzerland were said to have bought them.
This week they have made a sudden appearance on the shelves in Coop supermarkets in Vaud, with bright red "new" collars on the necks of several bottles from the Les Fils de Charles Favre winery in Sion. The Favre family is well known for its wide variety of grapes and wines, and for some very good quality wines, which have won several awards. The Hurlevent line has a good reputation for interesting and unusual wines from the Valais, such as Amigne and Humagne blanc.
Les Fils de Charles Favre was the first winery to try glass corks, using them when it bottled a vat of Gamay in April 2005.
So what was a Favre family Hurlevent Pinot Noir doing on display with a glass stopper this week? Marianne Gaillet at the winery tells me that wines with glass corks have been doing very well, particularly in restaurants, where the combination of easier opening and no possibility of corked bottles contributes to their success. The winery now has five wines that are bottled this way.