Wine could take a lesson from beer

This wine is first commercially produced vino with hops.
This wine is first commercially produced vino with hops.
Posted: March 28, 2014

TURNABOUT is fair play, but in the case of Philly Wine Week it's also long overdue.

The inaugural grape-juice jag, which continues through Sunday, was modeled on the city's original bacchanal, Philly Beer Week.

Never mind that the winos have stamina for only 8 days of festivities while the suds set goes 10 - that's close enough. After all, beer has been plagiarizing wine for years.

The Everyman's drink, aiming to claw its way to the rarefied height of the vine, has adopted wine's expensive corked bottles, its aged and blended casks, its boorish Robert Parker ratings and lavish "pairing dinners." There are now professionally trained beer "sommeliers" who will select properly cellared bottles and decant them into delicate sipping glasses to enhance the bouquet.

There are even beers made via methode champenoise.

But wine stealing from beer? That's the liquor-store equivalent of the Koch Brothers camping out with Occupy Wall Street.

In fact, wine has a lot to learn from beer. For example:

_ Cans: If a Russian imperial stout like Oskar Blues Ten Fidy (10.5 percent alcohol) can survive aluminum, so can a Bordeaux. Perfect for picnics; no corkscrew needed.

_ Twelve-ounce bottles: That's two glasses - just enough for one person, and no oxidation issues from half-empty bottles.

_ Drinking songs: The Blues Brothers' "Hey Bartender" or Don Ho's "Tiny Bubbles"?

Your choice.

_ Taps: Why force tables to choose and share a single bottle that can somehow pair with four different dishes? Restaurants with 10 or 15 different draft wines give diners options by the glass.

It's notable that the few restaurants around Philly that offer this convenience (Tria Taproom, Johnny Brenda's) are well-established beer joints.

_ Price: At no more than $30, a bottle of the world's greatest beer is accessible to any beer lover. Only lottery winners will ever get a chance to savor the world's greatest wine.

_ Experimentation: Beer makers live to break rules. Low-alcohol IPA, smoked Helles, peanut-butter porter - it's all fair game.

Heck, some breweries even use grapes in their beer. Dogfish Head Noble Rot is a saison made with white viognier grapes and the brewery's Belgian-style witbier; Red & White is made with pinot noir. Allagash Victoria Ale contains Chardonnay grapes crushed right at the brewery in Maine.

Winemakers? They follow rules, and when they break them - as Jason Wilson, of Drexel University's TableMatters.com, pointed out a few weeks ago in a column about the harrumphing of the aforementioned Mr. Parker - they get slapped down by the Authori-tay.

Which is why I was astonished when a pal handed me a bottle of Bine & Vine, released earlier this year by South Jersey's Valenzano Winery.

It's a Chardonnay infused with hops.

As far as I can tell, it's the first-ever commercially produced wine made with the flowers used normally to bitter beer. I checked around with reps from several wine organizations, and none had ever heard of such heresy.

Naturally, it was a beer lover - or a pair of them - who came up with the idea.

Michael Jones, a Fishtown homebrewer who works at the winery, told me that it was born when he and owner Mark Valenzano were sucking down cans of Heady Topper, the renowned hop monster from The Alchemist, in Vermont.

"We're big IPA guys, and we started talking: What if we could get this hop flavor into a wine?" Jones told me. "We researched it and didn't find any other winery that had done it. But we figured, why not?"

Typically, brewers boil hops to extract their bitter qualities to balance the sweetness of malt. Valenzano and Jones didn't want a bitter wine, however.

Instead they simply added condensed hop pellets to cool stainless-steel tanks of wine and let them soak for about a month. The process, which brewers call "dry-hopping," extracts only the hops' aroma.

The pair experimented with about 20 hop varieties, looking for one that could complement their Chardonnay.

Some were ruled out immediately. For example, Cascade, the most widespread variety in today's craft beer, was too piney, and it dominated the citrus notes of the wine, Jones said.

Their choice came down to two varieties: New Zealand's trendy Nelson Sauvin, which mimics the aroma and flavor of sauvignon blanc; and U.S.-grown Citra, known for its tropical-fruit character. They ultimately went with the latter.

The finished product, Jones said, "is definitely not a novelty that we produced for the sake of doing something weird. It's a great wine and it can really stand up to be paired with a lot of foods."

The hops infusion gives the wine an intense citrus, almost floral character. Refreshing and full of flavor, Bine & Vine would fit in well at a weekend barbecue as a substitute for a sparkling Czech-style pilsner.

Look for it only in New Jersey liquor shops, at $15 a bottle, and don't cellar it - the aroma disappears with time.

The thing is, I predict that beer lovers will grab a glass before wine drinkers - ever weighed down by their tedious orthodoxy - take the dare.

Philly Wine Week notwithstanding, wine still has a lot to learn from beer.


"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. Email: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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