Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Alphabet Soup Project -- “E” is for “Extract”

Happy New Year, everyone! I’ve neglected the Alphabet Soup Project for far too long. Thought I’d start the new year off right…

At your next wine tasting, you could hear a wine referred to as “highly extracted” and wonder what the heck the pourer is talking about. “Extracted from what?” you might think to yourself before trying your sample. When you do get a sip, what will probably come to your mind is “Whoo…that’s a big wine!” Extract is what makes a big wine “big.”A “highly extracted” wine will likely taste somewhat “chewy.”

Where does this chewiness come from? Think a moment about what wine is – grape juice to which yeast is added. The yeast fermentation creates alcohol. Once the sugar in the wine is converted into alcohol, it’s stored and eventually bottled. The basis of wine is alcohol, any remaining sugar, and what remains of the juice.

Alcohol itself isn’t heavy. (Do a shot of Everclear if you doubt this.) Residual sugar can add weight to the feel of a wine on the palate, but that much residual sugar usually only exists in dessert wines. The heavy feeling of these extracted wines comes from all of the other stuff floating around in the mix.

Along the wending path of fermentation, the wine gathers various elements. “Extract” in a wine means anything that the wine collects or extracts from its surroundings during its creation. Or, in short, anything that doesn’t result directly from the act of fermentation itself.

What do I mean? Red and rosé wine picks up color and tannin from coming into contact with the grape skins during the fermenting process. White wine may gain character from “resting sur lie” (meaning that it sits on the dead yeast for awhile before bottling). Barrels can impart various flavors and additional tannin. Grapes may reflect the composition of their terroir’s particular soil, like the funk of French wines. Winemakers may add additional sugar, juice, or even (gads) flavorings to wines.

Any or all of these things make up “extract,” which gives a wine its particular flavor and character. The level of extract one prefers may be second only to preference for acid in determining the style of wine one will order at a given point in time.

Although it may be absolutely applicable, “extract” isn’t a term that pops up too often with white wines or reds that are traditionally light like Beaujolais. It’s used most often with bigger reds and then, usually, to describe the fullness of the body of the wine and the strength of its primary flavors.

Generally, you’ll hear bigger wines like shiraz/syrah, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and zinfandel get described in terms of being “extracted.” The level of extract is a major consideration for a winemaker. Wine with less extract will be of a leaner, lighter style – while more extract leads to a chewier, fruitier wine. There is such a thing as too much extract. If a wine is made in an overly extracted style, then any nuance or subtlety of the wine gets blasted out of the flavor by the heavy fruit or tannin.

Through the “oughts,” highly extracted, chewy red wines were in high favor, mirroring what happened with California chardonnay in the nineties. Thankfully (at least in my opinion), winemakers across the board have decided to start moving back to a somewhat less in-your-face style to allow the various components of the extract to make appearances.

The easiest wine for me to use as a demonstration of extract is California zinfandel. Zinfandels as a rule are big, powerful wines. They have full fruit flavors, are high in alcohol, and are usually quite tannic. That particular profile of wine requires a winemaker to create a “highly extracted” wine. It’s very easy for a winemaker to get overly cautious and produce a wine that doesn’t have a lot of body or flavor. It’s also easy to go over the top with extraction and create something mouth puckeringly strong. (Relatively inexpensive zinfandel is notorious for being overextracted.)

I tried a few zins recently that showed off different extraction levels quite nicely. If you’d like to get a sense of the “rules of extraction,” here are a few examples, all $12-18:

Kenwood 2007 Yalupa Old Vine Zinfandel – I would consider this an “underextracted” Zin. The nose is straightforward with plums and menthol. The body is very thin for a Zinfandel. In fact, the wine almost comes across as light-bodied, which is a bit odd. There are some coffee flavors from the tannins, but they’re weak. I tried this wine with dark chocolate, and the chocolate completely overwhelmed the flavor of the wine, which almost never happens with a zin.

Murphy Goode 2007 “Liar’s Dice” Zinfandel – This is the flipside of the Kenwood. I find the Liar’s Dice to be overextracted. Now, some people really like this fruit-bomby style of zinfandel. If you’re into big cherry and blackberry flavors on top of some heavy tannin, then this is your wine. For me, that’s really all there was to it. Big fruit and alcohol. Subtle as a cinder block. There’s a time and place for this kind of wine, but they usually involve loud music and lots of people.

Van Ruiten Vineyards 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel – This is still a really big wine, but they did a nice job with the balance here. The nose is amply filled with vanilla and plums. It’s full bodied and spicy. There’s a lot of fruit here, balanced with a pleasant smokiness, the latter of which intensifies on the long finish. With some chocolate, bacon flavors emerge. This is not a bad thing, by any stretch. For me, the most appropriate level of extract of this sample.

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