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Markham looks to the future

Still mad about Merlot after 45 years.

Merlot has been synonymous with Markham Vineyards since its first vintage in Napa Valley in 1980, and the charm of the variety has never been more apparent thanks to winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls. As the 2022 harvest wound its way to a close, she told The Tasting Panel that “it has been a fast-paced vintage—one that has allowed me to take lessons learned from prior vintages and make critical decisions at the right time.” With perspective derived from her longevity at the winery, Nicholls is well equipped to guide the portfolio’s style while mentoring her all-female winemaking team on best practices as they deal with the increasing unpredictability of Mother Nature. 

Farming for the Future

When it comes to sustainability, the trajectory of Markham’s star-studded collection of estate vineyards—now under the direction of viticulturist Taylor Abudi, who joined the team early in the 2022 growing season—is impressive. Twelve acres of the winery’s Hopper House Vineyard in Yountville, which are serving as a trial space for various sustainability practices, have seen no synthetic inputs since 2021. Named after the family home on Hopper Creek, whose habitat has been restored by neighboring Dominus Estate, this gently sloping benchland at the foot of the Mayacamas was one of first terroirs in the Valley to be planted to vines in the early 19th century.

“Our Hopper House Vineyard is a truly significant place in terms of viticulture in Napa Valley,” said Abudi. “It’s been farmed conventionally for decades, and now we’re pursuing sustainability practices to help replenish our natural resources, improve air and water quality, and protect our ecosystems and wildlife habitats.” To that end, farming practices continue to evolve at all the winery’s 260 acres of estate vineyards—Yountville’s Hopper House Vineyard, Yountville Ranch Vineyard, and Bryan’s Block at the Yountville Ranch Vineyard; Little Cannon Vineyard in the Oak Knoll District; Markham in St. Helena; and Rockerbox Vineyard in Calistoga—with a long-term focus on better vineyard and soil health. Among other things, the wineryy is marking its fifth year of drill planting a rotating cover crop of clover mix, brassicas, and insectary rows and is now moving to no-till farming for all of its sites.

The vineyards are certified through the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, which ensures sustainable winegrowing practices that benefit the environment, the community, and the development of high-quality grapes and wine. But sustainability involves more than the adoption of innovative technology and setting a timeline for achieving environmental and climate goals: The “people factor” is also an essential part of Markham’s ethos.

A Dream Team

In her role as head winemaker, Nicholls directs an all-female winemaking team that includes assistant winemaker Abigail Horstman and enologist Patricia Sciacca. The collaborative culture that thrives at Markham is a direct result of how she prioritizes the professional growth of her team.

During a technical tasting of the portfolio, the value of empowerment was demonstrated by the fact that everyone had a seat at the table and had an opportunity to offer insights into the winemaking process and the sensory characteristics of the wines. This scenario, which is rarer than you might think, ensures a high level of communication particularly but not only during the hectic months of harvest—it’s woven into the fabric of Markham’s operations.

As role models go, Nicholls is impressive for reasons well beyond her winemaking talent. In 1989, she was among the first women to enter the Napa Valley wine industry, accepting a position in the laboratory—a place where many women did (and still do) get their start—at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. She joined Markham’s founding general manager, Bryan Del Bondio, in 1993 and became one of the first women in Napa Valley to serve as a head winemaker in 2001.

Next year will represent a particularly significant milestone not only for Nicholls—who will celebrate 30 years of an impressive career that has made her synonymous both with Markham and with the heritage of Merlot in Napa Valley—but also for the winery, which will celebrate its 45th year in operation.

The Return of the Cannoneer

Leading up to the anniversary, Nicholls and her team have been revamping Markham’s portfolio with an emphasis on Merlot and Cabernet. It now includes four tiers that made their debut in 2021: the Napa Valley Series, the District Series, Marked Parcels, and the winery’s Bordeaux-style icon, The Character. The winery’s label artwork was also redesigned in a tribute to Markham’s historic cannoneer (who first appeared on the label in 1980): Winery founder and U.S. veteran Bruce Markham used to signal the start of harvest by firing a miniature cannon.

For The Character’s second vintage, 2018 ($135), only seven barrels were sourced from Markham’s Yountville estate vineyards. The wine is framed around Merlot (65%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (21%), with Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc completing the blend. Nicholls and her team fermented the wine in stainless steel, allowing it a generous amount of time on the skins, after which it spent 30 months in 100% new French oak. Prior to release, it showed a seductive and generous depth of flavor and freshness along with secondary notes of coffee and black pepper.

At the other end of the pricing spectrum is the Napa Valley Series, among them a 2019 Merlot ($29) that punched far above its weight with cherry blossoms, sapid red plums and cherries, black tea, star anise, and vanilla as well as a fresh, savory finish.   

In between, you’ll find the District Series, including wines from select Napa Valley sub-AVAs such as the 2019 Yountville Cabernet Sauvignon ($65), a cool, floral expression of lavender-scented red and black currants; blackberries; and lush, resolved tannins. The Marked Parcels series, meanwhile, represents Nicholls’ selections from each estate vineyard, of which the 2019 Yountville Ranch Merlot ($65) was a standout with cherries and raspberries, notes of dark chocolate, caramelized toast, and the chalky tannins so often cited as a marker of benchland terroirs. 

An Anniversary Makeover

While Markham’s vineyards and stone cellar—which was built by Bordeaux immigrant Jean Laurent in 1879—together represent the soul of its estate, the property has recently been renovated with an eye toward the future. Investments in the winery include the addition of modernized crush equipment, new presses, and smaller tanks. Nicholls explains the latter amount to a “a winery within a winery” for special projects that explore prized small lots to develop unique wine expressions.

The tasting room has also undergone a major renovation that showcases the talents of the winemaking team and their Merlot-centric identity. The space has been artfully upcycled, building on existing materials to give it and the surrounding courtyard and patios a warm, contemporary vibe. The interior design leans toward the mid-century modern and Bauhaus styles, featuring soothing neutral colors and statement artwork under soaring ceilings. Against this backdrop, flights of Markham’s District Series and Marked Parcels wines can be customized according to guest preference and optionally paired with cheese. Meanwhile, the adjacent historic barrel cellar can accommodate private functions for up to 175 people; it has been redesigned to provide a front-row view into where all the magic happens.

The winery’s generous grounds have also undergone a makeover to create intimate outdoor seating areas with soothing water features and water-efficient plantings, while outdoor fire tables invite visitors to linger even in cooler weather.

Between the portfolio revamp and the winery renovation, Markham has been polished to perfection for its 45th vintage and for decades to come.

Why is pu-erh the Pinot Noir of teas

Pu-erh tea is one of the most obsessed-over teas in the world – and one of the few that can improve with age.

Over the last decade, rapid modernization and rising incomes in China have made the production of labor-intensive artisanal teas like pu-erh far more costly. The quality of Chinese tea is also being impacted: by climate change, industrial farming practices and changes in production methods that favor quantity over quality.

For San Francisco-based tea master Roy Fong whose 45 metric tons of tea are slowly ageing in an atmospherically controlled warehouse, this means selling the pu-erh tea he bought in the 1990s back into the Chinese market.

Tea master Roy Fong

The history of Pu-erh

From its beginnings, pu-erh tea has been esteemed. The very first book on tea, The Classic of Tea, written in the eighth century by Lu Yu who the Chinese sometimes call the “father of tea”, extols this tea’s virtue above all other varieties. Pu-erh gets its name from a city in the remote southern mountains of China’s Yunnan Province, but it can come from anywhere in those mountains where for two millennia tea has been grown and produced. Pu-erh-style teas have also been produced for centuries in the neighboring provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hunan and in the border areas of North Vietnam, but in 2003 the Chinese government defined authentic pu-erh as coming solely from Yunnan. Tea plantations and wild groves are cultivated at altitudes of more than 1,500m/5,000ft and flourish in Yunnan’s warm, humid climate.

While the term “wild” is common in labelling, older tea trees are cultivated trees that were left unmanaged for years and now grow naturally. One of Yunnan’s largest ancient tea plantations covers more than 4,050ha/10,000 acres in the forests of the Jing Mai and Man Jung Mountains. Yunnan’s oldest tea trees are treasured as living fossils: one of the oldest trees on record, discovered in 1961 growing on the Great Black Mountain of Bada San, is 1,700
years old.

The cultivation of pu-erh tea in China dates back as far as the first century. As trade routes developed throughout Central Asia, tea was one of the first things to travel along them. As a Chinese proverb puts it: “Better to be deprived of food for three days than tea for one.” To make their tea easier to transport – it could take a year for a horse-drawn caravan to reach Tibet – the Yunnanese began compressing it into bricks, cakes, bowls and, later, into more fanciful shapes.These long treks to market also led to the discovery that the broad, tough leaves of pu-erh trees had a singular ability to improve over time, becoming earthier and more complex.

Aged bings or cakes can command $5,000 USD.

Eventually, the finest teas were intentionally aged to increase their value. By the 17th century, aged pu-erh was being sent as tribute to the Chinese emperors. Production and styles Pu-erh comes in two basic styles: raw, known as sheng, and cooked, known as shou. All tea starts as sheng, when green tea leaves are wilted, dry fried, rolled and sun-dried. Then, there’s the option of “cooking” the tea into shou, a process invented in the 1950s but popularised in the 1970s to imitate the long ageing process of raw tea. Today, cooked pu-erh is more popular than raw in Hong Kong.

The tea ferments in a warm, humid environment for up to one year, in a process that deepens and mellows the flavors and adds increasing amounts of complexity. Whether raw or cooked, at this point, the pu-erh – which has a distinctively astringent and tannic character – can be sold loose. Normally, however, it is compressed into cakes – or into bamboo stalks or even hollowed-out citrus fruit – and allowed to sit for years for what is essentially an extended microbial fermentation. Just as a wine can evolve over time, pu-erh flavors can change dramatically as the compressed tea and the beneficial fungi it harbors continue to interact.

Complex microbiome

Researchers have identified 390 fungal and 600 bacterial organisms in the microbiomes of raw and cooked pu-erh teas. The most commonly observed fungal taxa belong to Ascomycota and the most commonly observed bacterial taxa belong to Firmicutes, Actinobacteria, and Proteobacteria. Interestingly, fungal diversity drops and bacterial diversity rises as a result of raw or cooked fermentation. The composition of microbial populations changes significantly
among fresh leaves, and raw and cooked pu-erh.

Microbiome of raw, fresh and ripened pu-erh tea.

The most sought-after tea, aged raw pu-erh, has a fungal population more like cooked than young raw pu-erh. This indicates that the accelerated microbial fermentation of cooked puerh results in a microbial community composition similar to that found in much older, raw pu-erh. It also provides an explanation for the rapid acceptance and widespread use of the cooked pu-erh process. Contrary to the beliefs of many collectors, ageing does not
significantly affect the communities of cooked tea, suggesting that ageing cooked tea is unnecessary.

Traditionally, ageing took place in mountain caves, but today most tea merchants use temperature- and humidity-controlled warehouses. It can take up to 30 years for a pu-erh to be considered fully mature – though some tea pros think it should not age for more than 15 years. When it reaches that point, the resulting brew tastes pungent and earthy, but also clean and smooth, reminiscent of the smell of rich garden soil or an autumn leaf pile and often with roasted or sweet undertones.

Despite its low profile, pu-erh is not a newcomer to the West; it most likely made its first appearance in America in the late 19th century with the wave of immigrants who arrived from China’s Canton province to build the railroads. Fong, who owns the Imperial Tea Court and operates tearooms in San Francisco and Berkeley, California, calls pu-erh the birthright of every Cantonese. “During my childhood years in Hong Kong, whenever tea was served, pu-erh was the automatic choice,” he says. “I think there would be violence if cooked [pu-erh] were ever banned in Hong Kong or southern China.”

Growing market

Fong, who markets his own brand of pu-erh as part of his San Francisco-based business, believes good-quality cooked pu-erh peaks at 20 years. “There is something magical that happens with shou after 20 years,” he says. “It becomes soft, smooth, silky and rich. Some teas can have delicate plummy and almond notes. They are still youthful and retain their floral qualities, but they are highly concentrated, with distinct layers of flavor.” However, pu-erh spent decades mostly confined to Chinese restaurants. But in 1993, when Fong opened his first San Francisco tea-house assuming that it would mainly attract Chinese expats, he was surprised to find most of his clientele was Caucasian.

Not only that, many were interested in pu-erh, and willing to pay market price for aged varieties. Most Westerners, if they’ve tried pu-erh at all, have only sampled poor-quality pu-erh. The tea’s pungent earthiness can be jarring for people who expect a delicate brew. Fong likens it to strong cheeses, or tannic
wines. Those who appreciate complex flavours, however, have ensured that interest in pu-erh has increased over the past decade.

Pairing Pu-erh

Pu-erh has also finally broken out of the dim sum houses. Alice Cravens, a former tea buyer for Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, and other fine-dining restaurants, says pu-erh has pairing potential far beyond Chinese food – she likes to suggest it to restaurants that offer lots of wood-fired dishes, like grilled lamb. “Red-wine drinkers gravitate to the robust flavors and wine-like tannins of these rich, intense teas,” she says. “Pu-erh teas exhibit aromas and flavors that are found in wines like Pinot Noir: earth, forest floor, mushroom and even barnyard.”

Pu-erh has also made its way onto bar menus. The tea is a principal ingredient in drinks at New York hotspots like Pegu Club and the Flatiron Lounge. Brooklyn’s Marlow & Sons has offered various tea cocktails, including the Hot Iced Tea, made with pu-erh, orange bitters and whiskey that was infused with Himalayan long peppers. “The pu-erh tea really grounded the drink and gave it a smokiness that helped mellow the spiciness of the peppers,” says
bartender Johnny Edlund. “It worked out really well.”

There is a downside to this new popularity: as pu-erh’s profile has risen, so have prices. Vintage teas from the 1960s, known as “Masterpiece Pu-erh”, can command as much as $3,000 to $5,000 per cake. Then there are the people who, while honest, have come to appreciate pu-erh only as an investment, buying up choice cakes to age and sell for a profit later. “This scenario happened all over China,” says Fong. No matter what happens to prices, Chinese consumers seem thirstier than ever for pu-erh. More and more westerners are immersing themselves, drawn by the mystique, the ritual, the prestige and, above all, the flavor – that nuanced, earthy complexity that makes pu-erh unlike any other tea.

Renaissance for Chile’s Itata Valley

The prevailing impression of Chile’s wine industry as one based on international varieties and conventional winemaking practices leaves little to the imagination. Yet all along, its ancestral wine culture has been hiding in plain sight.

Following a chain of valleys that runs from north to south, the Itata Valley denominación de origen (DO) is located south of the Maule Valley DO. It spans 60 miles of rolling hills and native forests, extending east from the Pacific Ocean to the foothills of the Andes Mountains, where the Cerro Blanco, peaking at 10,500 feet, dominates the landscape.

Wine culture here in the northernmost of Chile’s three southern wine regions exemplifies what is known as “evolution in isolation.” Experiencing no phylloxera and only a modest incursion of international grape varieties, this isolated region has held on to its heritage grapes and ancestral winemaking practices seldom found beyond its borders.

The Itata Valley DO is centered on Ñuble, which became Chile’s 16th political region in 2018. Like the Ñuble River, which flows west from the Andes to join the Itata River as it winds its way north to the Pacific Ocean, the region takes its name from an indigenous Mapudungún word meaning “narrow river” or “stony river.”

While 97% of Ñuble’s vineyards lie within the province of Itata, the 13 communes comprising the Itata Valley DO extend beyond its borders and dip into the neighboring provinces of Diguillín and Punilla as well as the sunny coastal region of Bío Bío to the south. Here, the Mediterranean climate is like that of Maule and is cooled by the Humboldt Current that runs the length of Chile’s coastline, although any similarities to the northern valleys end there.

In contrast to the larger estates to the north, wineries in the Itata Valley are typically small and family-owned, with a production capacity averaging 60,000 liters per year. The average vineyard size here is just over 5 acres; plots are traditionally measured by the number of vines. Usually planted to old vines, organically farmed, plowed by horses, and handpicked, this rare patchwork of small estates has been instrumental in preserving the region’s culture and its distinctive wines.

Ancestral Varieties

The Itata Valley encompasses an extensive mix of head-trained, dry-farmed vineyards that are home to some of the oldest vines in Chile. The majority are ancient País (Listán Prieto), Muscat of Alexandria, and Torontel—varieties that arrived during the country’s colonial era. In the 1940s they were joined by Cinsault, Carignan, and Chasselas, which were introduced to improve the market price of the region’s wines, as well as by lesser plantings of the international varieties ubiquitous in many other areas of Chile.

Muscat of Alexandria and Cinsault form the backbone of Ñuble vineyards, especially in the Itata Valley, where they represent two-thirds of the grapes grown. Plantings of País, which came to Chile from Peru during the colonial era, are second only to those of Maule; Torontel, a natural cross of Muscat of Alexandria and País that originated in Mendoza, is considered indigenous. The heritage of these and other varieties is cataloged in Chile’s old-vine register; of the 22 producers from Itata listed there, ten care for vines 100 years or older, including Le Leona, which harbors a País vine dating back to 1798.

What’s Old Is New Again
One of the first major wine regions of Chile, the Itata Valley was initially planted by the Spanish in the mid-16th century. Wine culture flourished under the Jesuits during the colonial period, and viticulture became an integral part of the local economy.

Winemakers used the high-quality clay found in the region to make tinajas, or clay amphorae, and made barrels and vats from a native beech tree called raulí in which to ferment and age their wine. While these centuries-old practices were never fully abandoned, they are enjoying a renaissance today.

Producers to Know
Under his own name as well as the Rawüll and Kilaco brands, Gustavo Martínez is championing the use of ancestral varieties and production methods at his small winery in the Itata Province, where he ages País, Carignan, Cinsault, and Muscat of Alexandria in 20-year-old barrels.

Since 1992, the Pandolfi Price family has been making wines in Chillan Viejo, the easternmost commune in the Diguillín planted to vine. There, they produce Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Riesling under their Larkün and Los Patricios brands.

Juan José Ledesma, who works with Malbec from Bío Bío and Cabernet Sauvignon from Itata, explores the connection between music and wine at Terroir Sonoro, developing musical composition for each expression as part of his creative winemaking process.

Enologist Leonardo Erazo employs a combination of experimental and ancestral techniques at A Los Viñateros Bravos in the Itata Province to produce both modern and traditional wine styles. He works with aromatic white varieties planted on slate in the commune of Cobquecura as well as with fruit from Guarilihue, a cold coastal site in the Coelemu commune, where he recently completed a soil map.

Since 1983, Joel Neira and his family have tended Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, and Muscat of Alexandria vines at Viña Piedras del Encanto in the commune of Ránquil. They produce both still and sparkling wines under the Kürüf, Quartz Rouges, and Piedras del Encanto labels.

Built-in Sustainability
In a region that is home to a chain of 12 volcanoes, many of which are active, it’s a given that the parent soil is primarily granite. Its decomposed forms, including maicillo, or gravel rich in quartz, and rusty-colored, iron-rich clay, are found in the Cordillera de la Costa, the coastal mountain range. Further inland, there are pockets of sedimentary deposits along the rivers and caches of slate on the eastern slopes of the Andes.

The key to the Itata Valley’s natural sustainability lies in the location of the vineyards, which determines how much rainfall they receive, and the water-retention capacity of these soils. With approximately 33–43 inches of rain each year, the Itata Valley is one of the few regions in Chile that can be completely dry farmed. (Despite the presence of snowmelt from the Andes and many rivers, Chile does experience droughts, and water resources are increasingly scarce.)

With approximately 300 wineries, of which 26 export to 23 different markets and 38 are potential exporters, the future looks auspicious for the Itata Valley.

Five Decades for the Class of ’72

Of the California wineries celebrating their 50th birth year in 2022, six gathered to mark the occasion with a retrospective tasting at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. Each dazzled us with three wines while reflecting on five decades of harvests and providing a snapshot of their current vintages.

In his 2002 Decanter story on the 30th anniversary of the Class of ’72—as the Napa Valley and Sonoma wineries that either were founded in or presented their inaugural releases that year have come to be known—Paul Franson noted that it was a glowing report about the future of the wine business by Bank of America that emboldened many to make the leap of faith required to live their dream.

And yet 1972 wasn’t an easy vintage; on its 25th anniversary in 1997, Wine Spectator’s James Laube wrote that “if you turned back the clock to 1972, you’d find one of the—if not the—worst [Napa Valley] vintages in modern history.” His observation is a testament to the passion and determination that kept these post-Prohibition winegrowers, who were known for their camaraderie, going strong.

In fact, the vintage was a dry one, with intense summer heat spikes and rain during harvest, yet quality for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars remained excellent. Stag’s Leap assistant winemaker Luis Contreras and vineyard manager Kirk Grace presented the 1972 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon. Representing the second harvest from vines planted by Warren Winiarski, the wine was showing well, having moved to fully tertiary flavors of umami, loam, clove, and black pepper, while its aromas pointed to evidence of bright red fruit and even citrus in its youth.

Made by founding winemaker Bill Sorenson, the Burgess Cellars 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon was presented by current winemaker Meghan Zobeck. With a deep ruby-garnet core and a fully garnet rim, the wine was very much alive, offering complex leathery notes courtesy of Brettanomyces, deep brown spice, earth, black tea, and, eventually, coffee. Like the mythical phoenix, Burgess has risen from the ashes after being destroyed in the Glass Fire in 2020 thanks to its new owners, Lawrence Wine Estates, and the arrival of Zobeck, now in her second vintage.

Chateau Montelena’s fame will forever be entwined with that of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, as together they conquered the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, which succeeded in shining a spotlight on Napa Valley. Presented by winemaker Matt Crafton, Montelena’s 1990 Chardonnay was made by Bo Barrett with destemmed fruit from the Oak Knoll AVA; vinified without malolactic conversion, the wine was both fresh and lush, with delicate notes of petrol and ripe pineapple (a classic marker of the Old Wente clone) and a dusting of nutmeg.

Diamond Creek’s 1993 Red Rock Terrace, made by Al and Boots Brounstein, was the product of a cool, wet vintage. Made from dry-farmed vines planted in 1968, the deeply extracted expression showed layers of dark, spicy fruit, including blackberry and cassis, and earth with resolved, dusty tannins. The winery was acquired by Maison Louis Roederer in 2020 and is under the guidance of president Nicole Carter, who presented the wine.

Dry Creek Vineyard’s Dave Stare was one of the only winemakers in the Class of ’72 to study at the University of California, Davis, prior to founding a winery—in fact the first winery in Dry Creek Valley since Prohibition. Winemaker Tim Bell presented the 1994 Fumé Blanc, renowned for its provenance as one of the first Fumé Blancs besides Robert Mondavi’s. Bright, beautifully golden, and vibrant, the wine was redolent of toasted hazelnut, golden apple, and aromatic dried herbs.

The retrospective tasting was organized by Lisa Mattson, creative director for Jordan Vineyard & Winery, who was not about to let the 50th anniversary of the Class of ’72 go unacknowledged. Founders Tom and Sally Jordan were already Francophiles when Tom read a Wall Street Journal article citing Bank of America’s aforementioned report on the bright future of the California wine industry. He planted vines in 1972,and Jordan’s first harvest was in 1976.

In 1980, when newly elected President Ronald Reagan chose the wines that would be served at state dinners, Jordan was among them, helping to make a name for Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. The 1999 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon was presented by grower relations manager Dana Grande, who pointed out that 1999 was a “rebound” vintage after the notoriously cool 1998 and that it was the first vintage made from Jordan’s hillside estate vineyards. With a deep garnet core moving to a narrow garnet rim, the wine opened with lighter red-fruit and black olive aromas that deepened to a rich,
nuanced palate of black cherry, tobacco, and vanilla.

For tasters with an appreciation for older vintages, it will be a dream to revisit these and the spectacular 12 wines that followed them in 2044, on the 72nd anniversary of the Class of ’72.

Honing Perception

Evaluating chocolate and fragrance can expand your tasting skills

Beyond our five senses—smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight—our brains regularly perceive other sensations from temperature (or thermoception), which is part of flavor; pain (nociception); the passage of time (chronoception); and our body’s movement and orientation in space (proprioception).

In an effort to expand my perception beyond my daily work with beverage alcohol, I tackle the evaluation of chocolate and fragrance a few times each year by judging hundreds of products as part of an unpaid panel. We can make the case that judging wine and chocolate using a common language tips the scale in favor of the idea that tasting is based in objectivity: The rubric for evaluating the sensory characteristics, quality, and style of chocolate is similar to that of wine, and we can achieve consensus on that quality and style according to our analysis. The exercise is demanding but doesn’t require me to stretch too far beyond my comfort zone into uncharted territory while offering sheer gustatory pleasure.

However, evaluating fragrance, even using industry standard
guidelines, is considered by many to be almost entirely subjective.
Natural perfumer Mandy Aftel, who judges an industry award that bears her name, prioritizes the quality of ingredients and factors other than analytical evaluation. “My priority is what’s going into the bottle and whether a perfume is well made and evolves well,” she says. In her view, longevity or “dry down,” which refers to how long a scent lasts, doesn’t speak to anything other than the presence of chemicals.

Have you entered an empty elevator only to find it filled with fragrance worn by the previous passenger? In the perfume world, the trail a scent leaves in the wearer’s wake is known as sillage. Aftel says it’s the most immediate way to identify a synthetic fragrance: “Natural perfume doesn’t billow off the wearer leaving a trail; you must be very close to the person to smell it.”

When judging fragrance, I like to collaborate with fellow wine professional and perfume lover Mary Orlin, who has judged the TasteTV Artisan Fragrances of the Year Awards since its inception in 2012. While we can easily achieve a consensus for a description of the scents in question, we have very different emotional responses to them. Researchers have found that people inherently choose perfumes that interact well with their own chemistry, which provides at least one explanation for the highly individual nature of perfume choice.

“Perfume helped me decipher scent notes in wine,” says Orlin, “and my wine sensory training has helped me be a better evaluator of fragrance. I find them similar in the way that perfumes have a top, middle, and base note, [while] wine has aroma, a mid-palate, and finish.”

Guidelines for evaluating scent include two different aspects of quality: preference and emotional response being one and the quality of the ingredients and the accord or “soul” of the fragrance (which are key for Aftel) being the second. Other criteria include originality, power (also referred to as “projection”), radiance, longevity, and versatility.

The language of fragrance evaluation may be different, but I agree with Orlin that there are structural parallels to the analysis of wine. “An individual’s connection to perfume is profound,” said Aftel. “One of the most important factors we consider is beauty.”

The New Gold Rush

The San Francisco Bay Area has long been a destination for the wine world's movers and shakers; you can read about those I meet in my new column, Date by the Gate. This cycle, winemakers and authors made their way to the the area with tastings and book signings that were nothing less than awe-inspiring.

Biogenic amine toxicity a reality for histamine-sensitive consumers

In wine, biogenic amines are a byproduct of fermentation and malolactic conversion. They’re produced by yeasts and lactic acid bacteria during the process of amino acid decarboxylation, which lowers acidity and creates a more hospitable environment for the growth and survival of the bacteria.

Of the several different amines that result, tyramine and histamine
are the most frequent and problematic; together, they can cause a synergistic reaction known as biogenic amine toxicity, characterized by headaches, migraines, nausea, vomiting, and hypertension.

While not all no- and low-sulfur wines contain elevated levels of biogenic amines (and some contain none), their presence is related in part to winemaking that involves malolactic conversion. In cellars
where biogenic amine levels are high, higher-pH musts, native ferments, and the addition of no or low sulfur at the end of
malolactic conversion are the key contributing factors.

The resulting wines allow lactic acid bacteria to remain metabolically active and produce increasing amounts of amines during aging.
Casey Graybehl, R&D winemaker and production director for the Sonoma-based Obsidian Wine Co., makes three excellent low-sulfur wines for the brand’s Rabbit Hole label: Máslás, a piquette;
Pezsgö, a pétillant naturel; and Pear Blanc, a sparkling grape-and-pear wine.

Curious about amine production, he had the 2021 vintages tested. “Our winemaking practices for the Rabbit Hole wines, which are
typically wines bottled immediately after harvest, include native yeasts, low-pH musts with only a small amount of sulfur
added pre-bottling to inhibit malolactic fermentation, and zero filtration or fining,” he says.

“While this would seem like a scenario for biogenic amines to be produced, upon testing we did not see increased levels over our more standard winemaking practices. It’s very likely that our low-pH musts are inhibiting amine production.”

José Luis Ordóñez, Ana Maria Troncoso, Maria Del Carmen García-Parrilla, Raquel Maria Callejón,
Recent trends in the determination of biogenic amines in fermented beverages – A review,
Analytica Chimica Acta

Wines with normal levels of biogenic amines alone aren’t likely to tip the scales. But sensitive consumers who unwittingly pair wines that have elevated levels with foods that are rich in amines, including
aged cheese and charcuterie, are at far greater risk for adverse reactions (alcohol itself also increases their toxic effect).

Studies have shown that a mere 10 milligrams of tyramine can trigger the onset of migraines and that, given foods with different levels of histamine, symptoms of biogenic amine toxicity can occur at levels between 75 and 300 milligrams in both histamine-intolerant and healthy consumers.

Because the consumption of biogenic amines can pose a threat to human health, the Food and Drug Administration has set a legal limit of 35 parts per million of histamine in seafood products, but no
specific regulations exist for it or other biogenic amines in wine.

In a comprehensive research paper for the Institute of Masters of Wine on the use of sulfur dioxide as related to biogenic amine levels in wine, Sophie Parker-Thomson, MW, concludes, “If SO2
additions are unconscionable for the Natural Wine movement, perhaps zero-added SO2 wines should carry a mandatory high-BA
warning unless they can prove otherwise.”

Flavor-tripping with the miracle fruit

Early humans are known to have altered their consciousness with practices that some scientists believe sparked the dawn of modern human cognition. The controversial “Stoned Ape” hypothesis suggests that our ancestors may have “eaten their way to consciousness” when they ingested the naturally occurring psychedelic known as psilocybin.

As a species, we’ve been eating and drinking to intentionally alter our states of perception ever since. For generations, the indigenous peoples of the Congo, Nigeria, and Ghana have used the fruit (and leaves) of Synsepalum dulcificum, a shrub indigenous to West and Central Africa, in ethnomedicine. The taste-altering properties of this flavorless, bright-red berry—dubbed “the miracle fruit,” it’s about the size of a coffee bean—make for a fascinating sensory experience.

Asaba or Miracle berry

Ghanaians call the berries asaba and have eaten them throughout history, but the first documentation of the fruit in Western society wasn’t made until the early 18th century, when the Chevalier Reynaud des Marchais—a French cartographer, navigator, and slave ship captain who traveled extensively along the west coast of Africa—witnessed the berries being consumed by natives before eating a meal.

In Ghana, they are traditionally used to eliminate the need for sugar or any sweeteners in items like koko (a sour, spicy porridge), kenkey (fermented white cornmeal), and palm wine. During the past few decades, Ghanaian farmers have produced asaba commercially and sold it through fair trade agreements.

Asaba contains miraculin, a taste-modifying glycoprotein composed of glucosamine (31%), mannose (30%), fucose (22%), xylose (10%), and galactose (7%) that chemically is roughly 400,000 times sweeter than table sugar. When we eat asaba, the miraculin binds to specific sweet receptor cells in our taste buds, making them easily activated by acidic foods like vinegar, lemons, pickles, and mustard and enabling us to perceive these items as sweeter for about two hours. (Miraculin doesn’t, however, affect our perception of foods with a neutral pH.) For this taster, miraculin makes lemons taste like lemonade, goat cheese taste like cheesecake, and mild red wine vinegar taste like off-dry natural wine.

Beyond tricking our palates, the potential uses for miraculin, which was first synthesized in 1989, are many; it’s currently being studied by Japanese researchers to improve the flavor of less sour foods like tomatoes and strawberries.

Its applications in sensory therapy include aiding cancer patients
whose taste perception is skewed by chemotherapy, and there are anecdotal accounts that it has helped people suffering from parosmia as a result of contracting COVID-19.

Asaba currently has “novel food” status in the EU, a classification that means a given food does not have a history of widespread consumption in the region and therefore requires a safety assessment before it can be used in food products.

And while it’s technically legal in the U.S. to buy whole or powdered asaba berries and to sell them in a restaurant or cafe, distributing items that contain miraculin is still prohibited. In a questionable ruling in the 1970s, the FDA classified the miracle berry as a food additive, meaning it would need extensive testing to gain approval for its use in manufactured food products; decades later, that testing has
yet to be completed.

Learning to Perceive

Why winetasters can’t always see the forest for the trees

Professional wine evaluation is a fundamental example of perceptual learning, a process that relies on prior experience to improve our abilities, which results in long-lasting changes to our perceptual

For example, when an expert taster evaluates a wine made from Sémillon, their perceptual state includes not only the wine they are tasting but also previous wines they have tasted and their perceptions of those wines. In short, it involves far more than the immediate impressions the wine delivers to our senses; it is intrinsically bound to our prior experiences.

While perceptual learning plays an important role in evaluating wine, there’s another phenomenon related to perception that arises from the wine itself: perceptual interaction. When our olfactory system
is confronted with complex aromas, we often perceive them as a single aroma due to odor blending in a process known as configural perception (our perception of the smell of coffee as a single aroma is just one of many examples).

At the same time, we are able to isolate individual odors within complex mixtures, as in the case of detecting a fault in wine, through what is known as an elemental perception process. The rules that govern these processes are poorly understood, but the contradiction they present raises the question: How do these types of perception facilitate or complicate matters for wine tasters?

I was recently tasting a flight of eight young semi-sweet and sweet wines from Bordeaux, all of which were made from Sémillon, vinified with some percentage of botrytized fruit, and aged in oak.

While the wines were characteristically complex, they didn’t exhibit the classic markers of orange marmalade, candied orange zest, or overripe orange that are characteristic of the style and indicate the grapes were subject to noble rot.

As I compiled an aroma profile for the wines, the absence of this descriptor was puzzling to me. Recent studies concerning the aromas of noble rot–affected dessert wines have revealed the importance of a well-known phenomenon in perfumery, perceptual blending, that results in the perception of confected-orange aromas.

Researchers identified two lactones responsible in this case: One is a compound that’s associated with oak aging (3-methyl4-octanolide, a whiskey lactone that has coconut, celery, and fresh wood aromas), the other with Botrytis cinerea development (2-nonen-4-olide, a newly discovered lactone that’s oily, coconut-like, and rancid).

While it was evident that noble rot had contributed to the sweetness of the young wines I was evaluating, the two specific lactones that result in the perception of candied-orange aromas weren’t detectable in them. Yet it’s very likely they would emerge with age.

Configural perception can present a dilemma for olfactory experts of all kinds, as specific training and repeated exposure to odors mean that we are better at elemental perception of odor mixtures; we can be better at detecting the parts than we are at perceiving the whole.

This is where perceptual learning comes into play. Sensory experts are keenly aware of this adaptation and develop the ability to move fluidly back and forth between perceiving the individual elements of an aroma and perceiving the blend.

Age drives complexity in sparkling wine

After tasting the Piper-Heidsieck Hors-Série 1971 ($499), a rare, late disgorged Champagne that spent 49 years resting peacefully on its lees, I was inspired to delve deeper into the role yeast autolysis plays in the flavor development of sparkling wine.

The wine, which is the first release of the new Hors-Série range, was made by then-cellarmaster Claude Demiere; an equal blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that was sourced from 12 different Grand Cru villages and did not undergo malolactic conversion, it is characterized by concentrated aromas and flavors attributed to
the low-yielding vintage.

Émilien Boutillat, who was appointed chief winemaker in 2019, disgorged the wine in February 2021, selecting a 2019 Chardonnay for the Brut dosage of 10 grams per liter. Describing autolytic characteristics in wine that has undergone lengthy periods of aging on the lees can be tricky, largely because these aromas and flavors aren’t part of a routine sensory experience and are inherently more challenging to pin down as a result.

Because Boutillat and I were tasting different bottles that showed slight variations, we compared notes during our Zoom session to compile a summary of descriptors for the wine: delicate yet complex aromas of honeysuckle, golden hay, dry garrigue, hazelnut, quince paste, and caramel; beautifully balanced and intense flavors of toast, baked apple, nutmeg, orange zest, and prune; and chalky minerality with lemon pith that persists through an incredibly lengthy finish. For this taster, it was the epitome of mineral expression.

In addition to the Hors-Série 1971, I also tasted the Telmont 2006 Blanc de Blancs Vinothèque ($209) with Telmont president and shareholder Ludovic du Plessis. In a joint partnership with Rémy
Cointreau, du Plessis is reviving a house he describes as “a sleeping beauty” by reducing the winery’s carbon footprint and converting the estate to organic viticulture by 2025.

The 2006 Vinothèque, which spent a minimum of three years on the lees and another 12 in the cellar, is a vinous wine with miniscule bubbles and notes of marzipan, brioche, young pineapple, and lip-smacking Granny Smith apple that culminate in a toasty, savory, umami-driven finish.

While du Plessis is planning comparative tastings to zero in on the sweet spot for lees aging at Telmont, which he believes is highly dependent upon vintage, this wine is a prime example of what researchers in Tasmania and South Africa have discovered about lees aging post–secondary fermentation: namely, that the base wine plays the dominant role in determining the complexity of a late-disgorged sparkling wine and that overall wine age has a much greater impact on the development of the characteristic flavors most commonly associated with sur lie aging.

While lengthy aging on the lees contributes to sensorial changes, enhanced foaming properties, and the development of the characteristics that winemakers refer to as autolytic, these researchers found that aging base wine on or off the lees produced similar aroma profiles irrespective of grape variety.

To better understand the impact of lees aging on flavor development, expert tasters participating in the trial were asked to evaluate base wines and tiraged wines for six sensory characteristics: autolytic, spicy, toasty, honeyed, nutty, and earthy.

Chardonnay base wine aged without lees showed significantly more intense nutty and honeyed flavors and, after 24 months of aging, its concentrations of compounds associated with malty, cooked, potato-like, honeyed, and floral aromas were more than 99% higher than those in the base wine aged on the lees.

While Pinot Noir aged on the lees had intense honeyed character and positive aromas of nuts and vanilla, it didn’t fare as well over time, showing increased levels of sweaty, cheesy, and rancid notes after 24
months. Having focused only on yeast-derived volatiles, researchers are now calling for further study on the effects of fruit-derived volatiles on the perception of flavor in sparkling wine.