Phylloxera is a pest. Literally.
In its nymph form, this tiny, voracious, sap-sucking insect native to North America feasts on grapevine wine roots. In the second half of the 19th century, after crossing the Atlantic Ocean through the actions of some sloppy English botanists, the phylloxera epidemic virtually wiped out the wine grapevines in Europe. To this day, almost all European wine grapevines have to be grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock.
Although phylloxera is really not much fun, it’s a great word to know if you want to impress your friends with your wine knowledge. And, while it might not look like it, it’s fun to say. Repeat after me: fill-ox-er-uh. Now try using it in a sentence. “This wine tastes like it has phylloxera.”
Don’t say that, though, because it’s wrong. You can’t taste phylloxera in wine. Well, maybe you can, but if you do, the wine would probably taste better, not worse. You see, phylloxera doesn’t kill grapevines right away. Roots damaged by phylloxera prevent nutrients from getting to the vines and the grape yields start to go down year after year. Eventually, the vine dies, but during the period where it is still bearing fruit, the grapes it produces have more concentrated flavors, simply because there are fewer of them. A wine made with these grapes will have rich flavors as a result, similar to a wine made from grapes of very old vines.
Grapes have natural sugars in them, which is a good thing because it is these sugars that are converted to alcohol by yeast in the fermentation process. Brix is the measurement of sugar content in the grapes, presented as a percentage of mass known as degrees Brix. There is a lot of science involved and terms like “apparent specific gravity” and “oscillating U-tube” that, trust me, you don’t want to know. Just know that the higher the degrees Brix, the higher the alcohol content in dry wines. Remember it this way: “The alcohol in high Brix hits you like a ton of bricks,” and the last word, by the way, is how you pronounce “Brix.”
Brix is not particularly pleasurable to say, but it’s kind of sexy to look at, which is why a lot of hip restaurateurs name their places with the word Brix in it.
Riddle me this: What gets wet when drying? The answer is a towel, but what does that have to do with wine? Actually, nothing at all because riddling isn’t associated with riddles at all, except maybe the one about how the heck someone thought of such a process.
Riddling is a traditional Champagne-making technique that involves rotating and gradually changing the angle of a bottle from horizontal to vertical. This process allows the lees – the leftover remains of the yeast that was introduced to create the secondary fermentation in the bottle that causes bubbles in Champagne – to end up in the top of the bottle, near the seal. Once there, the top part of the bottle is subjected to extreme cold, freezing the lees in some of the Champagne. The ice is then disgorged, which is another wine word that you might hear now and then.
The French word for riddling is remuage, but like most French words, it is hard to pronounce for English speakers and is not a particularly useful term right now because “remuage me this” would make no sense if used to introduce this segment of the article.
In the wine world, jeroboam (pronounced “jair-a-bow-um”) is the size of a bottle. It is named after the first king of northern Israel, and is the smallest of many bottle sizes named after Biblical kings or historic figures, which also include Methuselah, Salmanazar, Balthazar and Nebuchadnezzar. Little is straightforward in the French wine world and jeroboam is no exception. In Champagne, a jeroboam is 3 liters, equivalent to four standard 750ml bottles. Elsewhere in France, when used to bottle still wine, a jeroboam is 4.5 liters, equivalent to six standard 750ml bottles. No matter what is inside, a jeroboam is a big bottle for an alcoholic beverage and you need to have plenty of friends to help you drink it. Fear not if you don’t have a lot of friends; they’re easy to make when you pop a jeroboam-sized bottle of good Champagne or still wine.
A lot of famous people throughout history have come from Tuscany including Leonardo di Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei and Dante Alighieri. All of these men can be considered super Tuscans, but the term Super Tuscans in the wine world refers to a type of wine first made popular by Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta of the Tenuta San Guido estate in the Bolgheri region of Tuscany.
The most famous red wine throughout Tuscany is Chianti, which once upon a time could only contain a maximum of 70 percent Sangiovese, the iconic red grape in the region. To be called Chianti, the rest of the wine could only use local grapes and had to blend in at least 10 percent of a white grape. Chiantis back in those days used to be bottled in straw-lined flasks and the wine wasn’t very good. The good marchese at Tenuta San Guido preferred wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon, which also grows well in Tuscany.
After planting Cabernet Sauvignon at his estate in 1944 and then enjoying the wines it produced only personally or with friends, the marchese was convinced to start selling the wine – under the label Sassicaia – in 1971. Since wines made in the region that couldn’t be called Chianti were all lumped together in Italy’s lowest wine classification, the unofficial term Super Tuscan was developed to describe wines that used non-traditional Tuscan grape varieties, but weren’t run-of-the-mill plonk.
The problem with the term Super Tuscan is that it doesn’t really say anything about quality or what’s in the wines termed in such a way. They could be 100 percent Sangiovese, 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, or a blend of those grapes with Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot.
Partially because some of the Super Tuscans weren’t so super and still demanded a price premium because of their unofficial designation, the Super Tuscan craze pretty much died down in the 2000s, but what a brilliant marketing ploy it was while it lasted.
Although they might not be referred to as Super Tuscans anymore, there are plenty of excellent wines coming from the region that aren’t called Chianti, including Sassicaia, Tignanello, Solaia, Ornellaia, Lupicaia and many others. Be warned though; the super part of their name might not be used so much anymore, but they still command high prices.