Thursday, July 3, 2008

Doctoring Red Wine: Experimenting with the licorice/anise effect

There was a point a couple of years ago when I realized that, fundamentally, oak used in wine is a flavor additive. Oak is in no way endemic to the fruit of the grape vine. The separation between oak and grape became particularly clear in the course of my winemaking work. There, I was not using wooden barrels to age small lots of wine. Instead, I used glass carboys and added oak to the wine.

That act of adding oak to wine became, to me, an act of flavoring. It brought helpful tannins and balance. But, still, it was an act of adulterating flavor.

Because of this insight about oak, I got over many hang-ups about the purity of wine's flavor. We do, indeed, flavor wine.

Which leads me to this experiment - likely to be offensive, even in its conception, to many wine drinkers.

Here's the setup and the premise: I enjoy black licorice candy, and chew it from time to time. Some years ago, I made the chance observation that, after chewing a piece of black licorice, the taste of a given red wine almost always improved. The wine's flavor became rounder, deeper, more full-bodied and intense than it was when I wasn't eating licorice. Odd, indeed.

I tested the notion from time to time, and it almost always held true. Thin, mealy, meek reds became quite palatable. Decent reds became stunners.

The effect lasted more than a few seconds, but no more than a few minutes. Then, you'd have to chew another piece of licorice if you wanted to resuscitate the wine.

So, I've gotten to thinking, what is it about licorice that created this effect? And... would it be possible to create the effect in the wine itself, rather than in the drinker's mouth?

Thus, today's experiment.

You can learn from Wikipedia that most licorice candy is derived in part from the legume licorice, but, "in most of these candies the taste is reinforced by aniseed oil, and the actual content of liquorice is quite low."

Since I don't have licorice root handy, but do have anise seed (or "aniseed"), we'll start with that. Here's my approach: I split a bottle of Frei Brothers Reserve Russian River Pinot Noir, 2005, to which I had earlier assigned a modest two plus stars rating out of five.

Into one decanter, I let the Frei Brothers Pinot Noir sit overnight. To the other decanter, I added one-half teaspoon of anise seeds (the equivalent of one teaspoonful per bottle) and let the wine sit overnight.

Today, we taste...

Colors are identical, deep burgundy, not opaque.

The decanted, undoctored pinot noir has aromas of pitched, tight, slightly unripe fruit with a slight soapy aspect. The anise-infused version is, frankly, full of licorice scents, having lost any pinot noir aspects.

On the palate, the straight Frei is a mid-palate spectacle of tight, pitched fruit and acids, with a modest, clean finish. The anise-infused Frei is, indeed, a much rounder affair - delivering a fuller middle tone with less apparent acidity. But, the licorice flavor is simply much too strong.

Let's try a 50/50 blend (equivalent to one-half teaspoon anise seeds per bottle). It certainly tones down the aromas a notch, though anyone trying it would identify a licorice component. On the palate, I'm afraid the roundness is starting to evaporate even as the licorice aromas and flavors are diminished.

At another 50/50 reduction (now equivalent to one-quarter teaspoon anise seeds per bottle), overt licorice aromas are nearly eliminated. Sadly, so too are the mouth-feel and finish enhancements.

So, I'll call the experiment of adding anise seeds to the red wine a FAILURE.

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One more extra-credit thing to try before we sign off, though...

Does chewing anise seeds have the same impact as chewing black licorice? Ok, here goes 1/8 teaspoon seeds right into my mouth... Hmm, crunchy... and crunchy... and crunchy.

Now, to the undoctored, decanted wine... doesn't change the aroma (no surprise there). On the palate, there actually is an expansion and roundness to the mid-palate, much of the same effect as with licorice candy.

So I will deem this extra-credit experiment to see if anise seeds can displace licorice candy as a synergistic enhancer for red wine a SUCCESS.

More to come in this whole area.

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