26 February 2014

Introduction to Nomacorc Synthetic Corks


It is perhaps the least mellifluous word in the English language, and fares even worse once you know that the term designated the state of the art for guitar strings and surgical sutures for centuries. When you needed to stitch up a wound or play a stringed instrument, your best bet was to use part of the lower GI tract of a farm animal (not cats, but more cattle and sheep and whatnot) and hope for the best. Now there are synthetic substitutes for those products, and you rarely if ever hear someone in the E.R. requesting to be sewn up with traditional catgut.

In the wine industry, the accepted traditional packaging method comes from the 17th century: a glass bottle with a piece of tree bark shoved in it to keep the wine safe and let it breathe and mature over a few years. The problem with natural cork is that there is a high level of variability. Purchase a case of wine, let it rest for five years. Statistically, one bottle will be bad due to cork problems (TCA contamination or oxidation or leakage), and the remaining eleven bottles will vary somewhat depending on how much oxygen has reached the inner contents. Other enclosures have their own problems, as wines can suffer from too much or too little oxygen.

Nomacorc was founded by a Belgian wine lover named Gert Noël who found such a failure rate of 6-12% unacceptable, and given modern manufacturing standards, it's amazing that the wine business has gone this long with such numbers. He partnered with his son's North Carolina foam manufacturing company (Nomaco) that makes things like pool noodles, and thus Nomacorc was born. As with catgut, perhaps there is a better technology out there, even if it's not the traditional solution.

The product has evolved over the years and the company now controls 13% of the world cork market. (Not the synthetic cork market, all cork-shaped enclosures, since most of the other synthetic producers are now gone.) The company has operations in Belgium, Argentina, China, and of course, North Carolina. There are a few standard products, though custom synthetic corks can be produced, and all offer custom printing.

The photo at top depicts the current state of the art product: Select Bio, which is produced from polymers derived from Brazilian sugar cane production. Note the beveled edges, which prevent a "lipping" problem present in early versions of the synthetic cork. Note also that from across a room, you're probably not going to be able to tell that the cork isn't "natural" (even though it's derived from sugar cane).

While the company is the exclusive provider of corks used for Barefoot and Yellowtail still wines sold in the United States, the company is touting its expertise in oxygen transfer management to appeal to the higher end, even collectible market. While at the factory, we got to meet Ben Mayo, the winemaker at Paso Robles' Eberle Winery and an early adopter of the Nomacorc. He said that over the years, he's had no complaints from customers about the switch to synthetic, aside from one fan who had made a trivet from Nomacorcs and was surprised when they melted under a hot casserole dish.

Mayo brought along a bottle of his 2003 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the first elite vintages to be enclosed with synthetic corks. This bottle (released at $70, now going for $250), smelled and tasted remarkably young. Full of deep black fruit aromas, touches of leather and cedar, and free of obvious flaws. Not too young, but impressively stable and yet apparent that it will continue to improve over the next 5-10 years. Additionally, the synthetic cork was in great shape. The current batches of Nomacorcs are designed to provide specific oxygenation: different grapes and styles of wine require different rates of oxygen transfer over specific periods of time, and there are tools that the company has developed to find the perfect synthetic cork style for each bottling.

The science behind this whole operation is fascinating, and I'll have more details in my future posts about the winery tour. Stay tuned!

Note: This trip was sponsored by Nomacorc. All opinions are my own.

24 February 2014

Vinkara Wines of Turkey

I haven't had a Turkish wine since 2008, and I wasn't avoiding wines from the region, it's just that they never made it to my doorstep. Luckily, that turned around with a quartet of wines from Vinkara (the website seems to be down at the moment).

The modern Turkish wine industry is relatively young, though the country itself is the fourth largest producer of grapes in the world (most of those going to non-alcohol uses). Some estimate that there are over a thousand indigenous vinifera grape varieties in the country, and on this occasion I had the chance to try two grapes for the first time.

2012 Vinkara Narince
Black Sea (Tokat)
100% Narince
$15, 14% abv.

Light aroma of ripe peaches with low acidity and a mild body. Gentle finish.

2011 Vinkara Narince Reserve
Black Sea (Tokat)
100% Narince
$25, 13.5% abv.

Similar to the above, but with more floral notes, a bit more acidity, and a deeper body. Between the two I would definitely recommend the Reserve to go along with spicy grilled chicken.

2011 Vinkara Kalecik Karasi
Central Anatolia
100% Kalecik Karasi
$15, 13.5% abv.

Unfortunately this bottle was corked and was not able to be reviewed.

2010 Vinkara Kalecik Karasi Reserve
Central Anatolia
Kalecik Karasi
$25, 13.5% abv.

Certainly my favorite of the four, and reminiscent of a light table red from the South of France. Bright red cherry aromas and flavors with just a hint of tannins. Little elements of earth and oak as it opens up. Bring out the roast lamb and a tray of dolmas.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

21 February 2014

2012 Taburno Falanghina del Sannio

Grabbing a bottle of wine in North Carolina during the snow storm and sampling it out of little water tumblers brought back fond memories of my previous life as a corporate trainer, living out of hotels for two week stretches for a couple of years. Even the familiar scents of the Hampton Inn were oddly comforting during this visit, though the little knobbly soap is a new one for me.

While I had an amazing time with everyone on the trip, I am an introvert at heart and prize those hours I can grasp in the afternoon to read some news, enjoy a glass of wine, and maybe take a nap before starting the evening feast and socialization. Indeed, we had a long conversation about this topic over sushi while I was talking about the Meyers-Briggs Test and my lifelong bouncing around INTP and ISTJ.

Back to to The Wine Feed in downtown Raleigh... Once again, I was able to procure something that I had not tried before, and also got the opportunity to try a new grape in the process.

2012 Taburno Falanghina del Sannio
DOC Taburno
100% Falanghina
$18, 13.5% abv.

Dominant notes of lychee and dried fruit with a firm, slightly bitter, and completely dry flavor. Mineral finish with a slight acidic tone. Although the country doesn't match, I'd highly recommend this with a broad assortment of tapas to allow the salty and savory snacks to play against the interesting white wine.

19 February 2014

Ty Ku Junmai Saké

My co-workers are already getting sick of me talking about the North Carolina Nomacorc trip, but as we're having great conversations about Lean Six Sigma and efficient manufacturing processes, I'm taking the moral high ground. During all of the talk about synthetic corks and how they can regulate the oxygen transfer rates for specific wines, I was taking notes about the mobile 5S cart and kanban systems. Peeking at something and thinking, "Hey, that's a great example of Poka-Yoke!"

I'll have a lot more on the factory side later, but I really enjoyed getting to spend time in the downtown, artsy, some might say, hipster district of downtown Raleigh. We were so lucky to have lots of great restaurants within walking distance and being treated to lavish meals by our outstanding company representatives Katie and Whitney. After a massive Mexican feast on Thursday, the day we all got snowed in, it was decided that a lighter dinner was in order, so... Sushi O! But we enjoyed an even more spectacular spread that covered multiple wines, decadent platters of sushi, sashimi, nigiri, and I was able to indulge myself in all the eel and octopus I wanted.

Katie ordered a favorite saké... I have another online tasting from SakéOne coming up, and as a fairly recent convert to the beverage I will give the following advice: saké is best when enjoyed on its own without the influence of other drinks. Even the lightest Alsatian white will have stronger aromas and flavors than saké, and most cocktails are too strong. Try three or four of them on a clean palate and you'll be able to recognize the gentle characteristics. I've often said that if you really want to appreciate saké then you need to have strong opinions on different tea blends. No Darjeeling or Oolong is going to hit you as hard as a Cabernet Franc, but the subtle aroma differences are great training for the nose.

Ty Ku Junmai Saké
Nara, Japan
$19, 15% abv.

This is quite a bargain at the retail price point, and delivers light floral and lychee notes. A touch of citrus on the palate and a smooth mouthfeel mean that this would be a great introductory junmai saké for anyone that is new to the genre. I sampled it at room temperature and found the shape of the bottle to be quite fascinating.

17 February 2014

2012 Pullus Pinot Grigio

I picked up another interesting bottle at The Wine Feed in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. Not a lot of Slovenian wines show up here in Memphis, and it was a dry rosé, so obviously I was intrigued.

Pinot Grigio is typically made as a white wine, but the grapes themselves can range from green to pink to dark blue, meaning that if the skins are pressed a darker wine can be produced. This particular specimen was a deep salmon color, darker than most rosés and even visible through the green glass of the bottle.

Pullus wines are made in Lower Styria, Slovenia by Ptujska Klet, which has been in operation since 1239. Not a little after noon today, we're talking about almost 800 years ago. Although not as well known outside of the region, there are more than 28,000 wineries in Slovenia, with almost all production consumed domestically. I'm always excited to try something like this that managed to find its way across the world.

2012 Pullus Pinot Grigio
Štajerska, Slovenia
100% Pinot Grigio
$15, 13.5% abv.

Remarkably light body for such a dark rosé, with gentle raspberry notes on the nose and a round mouthfeel. Balanced acidity and just a touch of acidity on the finish. It would be quite good with a smoked turkey sandwich full of bleu cheese and alfalfa sprouts. I know that's rather specific, but I happen to be craving that combination right now.

14 February 2014

NV Familie Bauer Rosé

I'm typing from my hotel room in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina where I'm enjoying an extended visit thanks to the Polar Vortex. I'm here along with several other wine writers participating in a tour and series of meetings about Nomacorc, the world's leading producer of synthetic corks. I've learned a lot about them in the past couple of days and can't wait to go into a lot more detail on the production process and the benefit of these corks. They are not mere replacements for natural corks, but rather specifically engineered plugs to eliminate TCA contamination and provide for specific oxygen access to the wine depending on how that wine needs to be aged and when it will be consumed.

I'm here with Todd Godbout, Cath Monahan, Michelle Locke, Luke Whittall, and Mads Jordansen. They're a talented group with a wide range of experience within the wine world, and those links will take you to their various blogs, podcasts, Twitter feeds, and other media outlets. Be sure to check them out, and big thanks to Katie and Whitney for hosting us, keeping us fed, and taking care of our travel arrangements.

Next door to the hotel is a convenient little wine shop/bar called The Wine Feed. The selection is small but eclectic, with a wonderfully curated list that I imagine changes every few weeks. When I go to purchase a bottle of wine on the road, I usually look for a grape I haven't tried, an obscure region, or something that I haven't tried yet and can't find in Memphis. (That list gets smaller every week.) This little beauty caught my eye...

NV Familie Bauer Rosé
Niederösterreich, Austria
$15/1L bottle, 12.5% abv.

The company website did not have a fact sheet on this wine, and some sources claim that it is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Blaufränkisch. Light cherry nose with floral jasmine notes. Mild red fruit body with tart raspberry acidity on the finish. Gentle, and the one litre format makes this one an excellent choice for sharing with two or three people. Great choice for a light salad course or a cold salmon and dill recipe.

12 February 2014

Σοφοσ Greek Organic Wine

Σοφοσ Greek Organic Wine is a new product line from established Greek producer Κτήμα Γκιούλη (Domaine Gioulis). The word for wisdom is usually transliterated as sophos, but these wines are promoted under the name Sofos. I think I've covered all the different ways that someone could find this post through a Google search.

The wines are certified organic in Greece and the United States, and "vegan friendly"--made without any animal products but not formally certified. This was something that I encountered with a lot of the "sustainable" winemakers in Sonoma, who often produced wines that exceeded the USDA organic regulations but who chose not to go through the added expense of a certification.

Both of these feature half and half blends of native Greek grapes with traditional French varieties, something that has been going on in Italy for decades and seems to be spreading (I've even seen the practice in Spanish wines). While I'm certainly interested in tasting many different kinds of grapes and appreciate native terroir, at the end of the day if you're selling wine it doesn't hurt to have some recognizable names on the label.

2013 Sofos White
Korinthos Protected Geographical Indication, Peloponnese
50% Moschofilero, 50% Chardonnay
$12, 12% abv.

Nice and fruity with an overripe peach profile, hint of honey and lemon but dry. Tart acidity and a short clean finish. I poured it to go along with a spinach lasagna.

2010 Sofos Red
Korinthos Protected Geographical Indication, Peloponnese
50% Agiorgitiko, 50% Cabernet Sauvignon
$12, 12% abv.

Lots of berries and a lighter body than you'd initially expect. Cherries and blackberries dominate, with a few vegetal elements on the slightly tannic finish. Quite good with a roast pork sandwich.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

10 February 2014

NV Rosa Regale Brachetto d'Acqui

I've had this sweet sparkling wine before, but this particular sample came with a bar of Brix Chocolate, a nice dark blend designed to match well with wine and invented by Dr. Nick Proia, an Ohio pulmonologist. I enjoyed the combination: the nicely bitter dark chocolate went along great with the slightly fizzy dessert wine.

Brachetto d'Acqui is also divine with a thick slice of cheesecake topped with a raspberry reduction sauce. Even better if said cheesecake has a crust made from ladyfingers and is decorated with shavings of white chocolate.

I've mostly seen this wine in the 375mL format that is a better fit for serving two people, though the 750mL will work well for a double date or group dinner. Julia and I snacked on it and the chocolate after a lunch of lobster rolls on a cold Sunday afternoon, a weekend in which the city of Memphis was mostly incapacitated by less than an inch of snow.

At a scant 7% alcohol, this is a gentle beverage that won't overwhelm anyone and would be a great introductory wine for someone just getting into the fermented grape game.

NV Rosa Regale Brachetto d'Acqui
100% Brachetto
Brachetto d’Acqui D.O.C.G.
$18, 7% abv.

Sweet and slightly fizzy with a dominant aroma and flavor of raspberries with just a touch of the woody seed elements. Sticky on the edge of the glass and a long, sweet finish. Definitely made for dessert, and best served well-chilled.

Note: This wine was provided as a sample for review.

07 February 2014

Sparkling Rosé for Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day is coming up, and what says romance more than pink bubbles?

There was a time in my life when I thought such a bottle would be cheesy, some sort of artificially colored Champale with a plastic "cork" sold for $5 next to the box of chocolates that contain more wax than cacao. Over time, the concept of the dry rosé became one of my favorite wine styles, and the sparkling versions are just as fascinating. The pink color can come in many different shades, but what you're really getting is something made like a white wine with some of the depth of a red wine, a combination that makes such bottles inherently food-friendly.

Don't save these for dessert, but rather open them up early in the meal with appetizers--salted nuts, cheeses, salumi, olives. The acidity will play well against the salt and the whole experience will open up your palate for the meal to follow. Plus both of these are very affordable, although the second one comes in a half bottle size (which is ideal for two people during an appetizer course).

NV Juvé y Camps Brut Rosé
Cava DO
100% Pinot Noir
$13, 12% abv.

I've had several Cavas made from Pinot Noir, but I believe this is the deepest rosé. Classic aromas of wild strawberry and a touch of earth way in the background. On the palate there are big bubbles with a tart and acidic finish. While great on its own, the aforementioned salty snacks will really bring out the bold berry flavors.

NV Ferrari Rosé
Trento DOC
60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay
$17/375mL, 12.5% abv.

The Italian bottle is also heavy on the Pinot Noir, though made in a lighter style. It pours a lovely pale salmon color with a nutty and toasty nose. The Champagne-style grape combination produces a more classic French flavor. Medium bubbles and firm acidity. Long lemony finish. This one is going to work a little better with some fresh oysters, marinated calamari, or grilled baby octopus.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

05 February 2014

NV Enza Prosecco

This sparkling wine is "Extra Dry", which actually means a little sweet due to the odd relationship between French winemakers selling to British customers. What does that have to do with Italy?

Prosecco is usually crisp and dry, but like anything else, can be made in a variety of styles to meet the demands of the market. I'd imagine that the widespread popularity of Moscato (and the slightly fizzy Moscato d'Asti) has opened up the door for a little more sugar. And while I prefer my wines dry, these can be great crowd pleasers for group dinners as well as excellent introductory wines for people that are just getting into the subject. As always, I highly recommend Prosecco for both casual consumption as well as for blending in various cocktails. True, you can break out that $85 bottle of fine Champagne, but if you're going to start adding fruit juices and liqueurs, I'd stay stick to the sub $20 bottles.

This wine is made by Cantine Sacchetto, founded in the Veneto in 1915.

NV Enza Prosecco
DOC Veneto
100% Prosecco
$15, 11% abv.

A clean nose with a touch of sweetness on the palate. The wine shows loads of lemony acidity with a little apple flavor in the background and big bubbles. An excellent popcorn and potato chip wine for snacking while watching a good movie.

Note: This wine was provided as a sample for review.

03 February 2014

Arctic Chill Ice Ball Maker

I got the chance recently to test out the Arctic Chill Ice Ball Maker, made out of BPA-free silicone and designed to create a sphere of ice that is somewhere between a regulation tennis ball and racquetball in size. Such ice balls have become quite trendy in the modern mixology movement, as they allow a drink to stay cool without watering down the beverage.

It all has to do with surface area. If you want something to get really cold really fast (and then get watered down quickly), use a lot of tiny pieces of ice. The heat transfer will happen quickly, but so will the dilution. It's why many cocktails are shaken quickly and then strained--to serve them with all those little ice chips would result in an increasingly bland cocktail. If you're going to be sipping on an expensive Bourbon for half an hour, then you want a much slower melt. This is why frozen margaritas are terrible to begin with and only get worse as they achieve equilibrium with room temperature.

Arctic Chill Ice Ball Maker
$20/set of four

I made multiple ice balls over the course of a week, enjoying them with whiskey (pictured above), cocktails, and even just plain iced tea (yes, putting three or four of these in a pitcher of tea or juice is great). In advance of an event or cocktail party, you can make a bunch of them and then keep them in a zip-top plastic bag in the freezer.

The device holds approximately 125mL of water, though remember that water expands when it turns into ice at a ratio of roughly 9%. If you have ever worked in a lab with pipettes, then you can precisely fill it with 114mL of water and achieve a perfect sphere. In my less-scientific testing, I filled it up, squeezed out a bit, and let it freeze. Any excess will form a nipple on top of the ice ball, which you can easily snap off or perhaps leave on for the amusement factor.

As someone whose internal thermostat tends to run pretty hot, I'm looking forward to using these all summer long for pitchers of lemonade and the big insulated mugs of ice water that I rely on to keep hydrated in our tropical climate. I was a little skeptical of the artisan ice ball trend when I first heard about it years ago (trained mixologists would shape and form spheres from ice blocks), but having actually tried it, I can see the benefits and using a silicone mold is dead simple.

Note: This product was provided as a sample for review.