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WTN /WineAdvisor: Woolly thinking (d'Orschwihr 04 Alsace Pinot Blanc)

by Robin Garr » Wed May 16, 2007 12:51 pm

Woolly thinking

If you've ever worn a sweater outdoors on a drizzly day, you're probably familiar with the odd, earthy aroma of damp wool.

"Wet wool" is an infrequent scent in wine, but it turns up more often than you might expect. I've encountered it now and then over the years, and was inspired to address the topic after running into "woolly" wines twice in the past couple of weeks.

In the first, Freie Weingärtner Wachau 2004 Grüner Veltliner from Austria, the wool character was muted, close to the line between woolly and the vegetal scent that Austrian-wine experts call "lentil."

The second wine, though, the Chateau d'Orschwihr 2004 Alsace Pinot Blanc Bollenberg that's featured in today's tasting report, was way, way over the top, a wine so profoundly afflicted that it reminded me of wearing a dirty wool sweater while sitting in a dumpster eating rotting canteloupes on a hot summer day.

And yet - perhaps demonstrating the strange appeal that many of us find in food and drink with weird aromas and flavors (from ripe cheese to anchovies to "barnyardy" Burgundies) - I found it intriguing, especially with food, and didn't mind finishing my glass. I did not, however, pour a second glass.

Curiously, although many of the less pleasant aromas in wine can be clearly traced to a specific flaw - "barnyard" from the wild yeasts brettanomyces and dekkera, for instance, or "burnt match" from sulfur dioxide - there seems to be no real consensus among wine experts and judges as to the source and components of "wet wool."

A couple of technical references are silent on the topic, including Amerine and Roessler's <I>Wines, Their Sensory Evaluation</I> and Emile Peynaud's <I>Knowing and Making Wine</I>. Nor does Robinson's <I>Oxford Companion to Wine</i> address the issue, at least not under "wool," "wet wool" or "faults in wines."

This leaves the subject open to happy debate, and there's no dearth of that. Here's a short list of possible explanations that I've found on the Web or seen aired in our WineLovers Discussion Group Forums.

* <B>Varietal character or <i>terroir</i></b> - "Wet wool" turns up relatively often in Loire Valley Chenin Blanc, prompting some Internet sources to declare it a characteristic descriptor for the grape or the soil. "Wet wool" can also be a signature element in White Burgundy. This explanation is called into question, however, by its appearance in wines from other grapes and regions, including the two mentioned above.

* <B>Vineyard conditions</B> - <i>Botrytis cinerea</i> or "noble rot," a fungus that's considered beneficial when it grows on late-harvested grapes destined for dessert wines like Sauternes, is less desirable when it afflicts grapes meant for dry table wines. In sweet wines, it contributes to a lovely honey-apricot character. In dry wines, it comes across as a more earthy and less pleasant element. A cool, rainy harvest in October 2004 Alsace lends some credibility to this explanation.

* <B>Wild yeast contamination</b> - According to one report from vineyard scientists at New York's Cornell University, <i>brettanomyces</i>, the wild yeast most often implicated in "barnyard," "horsey," "leathery" or even "manure" aromas in red wines, can cause a "wet wool" aroma in whites.

* <B>Sulfur compounds</b> - A wine-making Website in British Columbia asserts that high levels of sulfur dioxide in wine - often associated with a "burnt match" scent - can impart a "wet wool" aroma. In a related situation, "wet wool" in Champagne is often attributed to the development of sulfur compounds in sparkling wine exposed to bright light for a long period. This "lightstruck" phenomenon is largely limited to sparkling wines, though.

So, we have a variety of explanations, some of them conflicting, for a phenomenon that's not terribly common, and that depending on its strength and on one's personal taste, may be considered either an intriguing flavor element or a flaw. This is the kind of thing that makes wine appreciation interesting, or complicated, depending on your point of view.

If you'd like to talk about your experience with "wet wool" in wine, or share your knowledge about this phenomenon and its explanation, I hope you'll post your comments to this thread.

<table border="0" align="right" width="155"><tr><td><img src="http://www.wineloverspage.com/graphics1/orsc0514.jpg" border="1" align="right"></td></tr></table>Chateau d'Orschwihr 2004 Alsace Pinot Blanc Bollenberg ($12.99)

Clear light gold. Funky and organic aromas of overripe melon, lanolin and and damp, almost "dirty" wet wool take some getting used to, frankly. Still, the flavor is easier to enjoy: Full-bodied white fruit shows only a hint of "wool" on the palate, laced up with snappy acidity, ending with cleansing lime in the finish. U.S. importer: Langdon-Shiverick, Cleveland. (May 14, 2007)

<B>FOOD MATCH:</b> A more traditional Pinot Blanc would be well suited with white fish, chicken or pork, but these offbeat flavors call for something bold. It was surprisingly well-paired with a relatively mild rendition of <i>Larb Gai</i>, a Thai chicken salad that I'll feature in tomorrow's <I>30 Second Wine Advisor FoodLetter</i>.

<B>VALUE:</B> A tough call for a wine that most people would consider flawed. I'd frankly pass on the 2004. But if the 2005 vintage, which is now in the market, proves to be similar but not as "dirty," it would be a fine value at this price point in the lower teens.

<B>WHEN TO DRINK:</B> Not for keeping, particularly in light of the concern that the off flavors might become even more dominant with cellar time.

<B>PRONUNCIATION</B>
<B>d'Orschwihr</B> = "<i>Dorsh-veer</i>"

<B>WEB LINK:</B>
Chateau d'Orschwihr has a fact sheet on the Bollenberg Pinot Blanc (20045 vintage) at this link:
http://www.chateau-or.com/details-e.asp?id=3

<B>FIND THIS WINE ONLINE:</B>
Check prices and find vendors for Chateau d'Orschwihr Bollenberg Pinot Blanc on Wine-Searcher.com:
[url=http://www.wine-searcher.com/find/Orschwihr%2bPinot%2bBollenberg/-/-/USD/A?referring_site=WLP]http://www.wine-searcher.com/
find/Orschwihr%2bPinot%2bBollenberg/-/-/USD/A?referring_site=WLP[/url]

<center>Subscribe to The 30 Second Wine Advisor</center>
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Re: WTN /WineAdvisor: Woolly thinking (d'Orschwihr 04 Alsace Pinot Blanc)

by Rahsaan » Wed May 16, 2007 1:14 pm

Robin Garr wrote:..it reminded me of wearing a dirty wool sweater while sitting in a dumpster eating rotting canteloupes on a hot summer day.


So that's what folks do in Louisville for a good time :lol:

Another indication of the less than celestial heights which the wine was trying to reach is the fact that on the label it clearly mentions "non-chaptilised" - as if it needed to make that clear.
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Re: WTN /WineAdvisor: Woolly thinking (d'Orschwihr 04 Alsace Pinot Blanc)

by Robin Garr » Wed May 16, 2007 1:37 pm

Rahsaan wrote:So that's what folks do in Louisville for a good time :lol:


If there's a bug zapper around to watch, it don't get no better than that!

Another indication of the less than celestial heights which the wine was trying to reach is the fact that on the label it clearly mentions "non-chaptilised" - as if it needed to make that clear.


I was going to mention that, but it seemed better not to open another interesting wine topic in an article that was getting long already.

Were you able to pick that off the tiny label photo, or have you run into this wine, Rahsaan?
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Re: WTN /WineAdvisor: Woolly thinking (d'Orschwihr 04 Alsace Pinot Blanc)

by Rahsaan » Wed May 16, 2007 1:38 pm

Robin Garr wrote:Were you able to pick that off the tiny label photo, or have you run into this wine, Rahsaan?


No, I saw it on your label photo, which was quite clear on my screen.
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Re: WTN /WineAdvisor: Woolly thinking (d'Orschwihr 04 Alsace Pinot Blanc)

by Gary Barlettano » Wed May 16, 2007 2:33 pm

Since Rahsaan beat me to the punchline with regards to commenting about your dumpster diving, I guess I just have one question. When one criticizes a wine for its wet woolliness, is that technically referred to as lambasting the wine? :roll:

OK, on that note, now I'm off to the Jelly Belly factory and Anheuser-Busch with my friends.
And now what?
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Re: WTN /WineAdvisor: Woolly thinking (d'Orschwihr 04 Alsace Pinot Blanc)

by Oliver McCrum » Wed May 16, 2007 3:25 pm

I've always thought it was a sulfur aroma, which is confirmed by Tom Cannavan's Wine Pages (see below). It tends to go away with air, and IME is only found in wines that are aged in neutral vessels (eg most Chablis, Alsatian wines and Loires, some Friuli).

Next time you might try splash-decanting the wine, or indeed you could use the old salesman's trick of recorking the bottle and shaking it vigorously.


WET DOG
Chien mouillé (F) Nasser Hund (G) Cane umido (I) Perro húmedo (S)
So-called "wet dog" or "wet wool" is a heat-generated volatile sulphur fault involving the Retro-Michael reaction of methional, which is thermally unstable and evolves rapidly into acrolein and methanethiol, which are responsible for the so-called "wet dog" odour and a stronger cooked cauliflower smell.
Acrolein, methanethiol
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Re: WTN /WineAdvisor: Woolly thinking (d'Orschwihr 04 Alsace Pinot Blanc)

by Robin Garr » Wed May 16, 2007 3:39 pm

Oliver McCrum wrote:I've always thought it was a sulfur aroma, which is confirmed by Tom Cannavan's Wine Pages (see below). It tends to go away with air


Interesting argument, Oliver, and certainly sulfur compounds (as noted) are one possible culprit. I'm dubious that it's the only explanation, though, for a couple of reasons. First, I wouldn't consider "wet dog" and "wet wool" as synonymous at all. Second, in my experience the "wet wool" aroma does not diminish at all with air or time, even with vigorous aeration.
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Re: WTN /WineAdvisor: Woolly thinking (d'Orschwihr 04 Alsace Pinot Blanc)

by Robin Garr » Wed May 16, 2007 3:42 pm

Gary Barlettano wrote:When one criticizes a wine for its wet woolliness, is that technically referred to as lambasting the wine? :roll:


No, he said, with a woolfish grin.
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Re: WTN /WineAdvisor: Woolly thinking (d'Orschwihr 04 Alsace Pinot Blanc)

by Oliver McCrum » Wed May 16, 2007 4:58 pm

My dog (Jack, an Australian Shepherd) and my woolly sweater (old-fashioned oiled wool) smell essentially the same when wet. Only oiled wool, though. The two tasting terms have been used interchangeably, in my experience.

The smell is so common in some French wine types that it would be hard to describe as a defect, but OTOH anything that makes you not want to buy the wine is at the least a commercial defect.
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Re: WTN /WineAdvisor: Woolly thinking (d'Orschwihr 04 Alsace Pinot Blanc)

by Doug Surplus » Wed May 16, 2007 6:40 pm

Robin Garr wrote:
Gary Barlettano wrote:When one criticizes a wine for its wet woolliness, is that technically referred to as lambasting the wine? :roll:


No, he said, with a woolfish grin.


Those are both 'baaad'
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Re: WTN /WineAdvisor: Woolly thinking (d'Orschwihr 04 Alsace Pinot Blanc)

by Oliver McCrum » Wed May 16, 2007 6:58 pm

Robin Garr wrote:First, I wouldn't consider "wet dog" and "wet wool" as synonymous at all.


Robin,

I found this list of sulfur-related aromas from the AJEV:

55. Rubbery
56. Hydrogen sulfide
57. Mercaptan
58. Onion
59. Garlic
60. Skunk
61. Cabbage
62. Burnt match
63. Wet wool, Wet dog

- not to mention an online reference to the fact that schoolboys in woolen blazers smell like dogs when they get rained on. Only on the internet. (Wait, maybe it's wet schoolboys?)
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Re: WTN /WineAdvisor: Woolly thinking (d'Orschwihr 04 Alsace Pinot Blanc)

by Bill Hooper » Sun May 20, 2007 1:31 pm

Personally, I've never found ANY duh-Orschwihr wine to be anything but sheiße. If they haven't been flawed, they've been so thoroughly and completely boring that I've wondered why they are exported in the first place (not to mention over-priced.) It is wines like these that really make one appreciate the finer wines of Alsace, but they also probably do much to inhibit further exploration of the region for the consumer who just happens to try a bottle on caprice.

I am glad too Robin, that you've reviewed a wine in an unfavorable way. Maybe it's a shade schadenfreude on my part, but I appreciate and value the bad reviews even more than the good ones. 'What not to drink' is often more helpful to people, IMO.
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