If you can’t stand the heat…

Slowly heat up some sugar to 300-plus degrees Fahrenheit and you will soon have yourself some caramel; slice an onion and slowly cook it in almost the same manner and you will have caramelized the sugars in the onion; bake a head of garlic at 350 for about 40 minutes and you will get yourself a caramelized aroma plus a wonderfully sweet taste.

Cook a sweet brandy-fortified white wine at about 105 degrees Fahrenheit for a few months and you will have created a cooked wine called Madeira, which, to me, smells an awful lot like caramel.

Over on Robin Garr’s Wine Lovers Web site forum we’ve been discussing the subject of cooked wine. It’s quite a discussion for two reasons:

First, for an online discussion, it is tame, showing what adult communication can provide. With one or two exceptions, Robin’s Wine Lovers site is normally inhabited by less confrontational wine geek than on many other sites—certainly, it doesn’t suffer from a divisive moderator.

Second, after going around a few times with the discussion I have come to the conclusion that the word “cooked” to describe a wine that has been heat damaged somewhere in the traffic between producer and consumer may be a quick and easy way to describe the problem, but it may not be an accurate description.

Many wine geeks claim that a cooked wine smells like sherry. What they mean is that the so-called cooked wine smells oxidized. I am not so sure about that.

Granted, a wine that is exposed to heat will oxidize quicker than it normally would, but a cooked wine is exposed to excessive heat, to the point of Pasteurization.

To me, the overall smell of cooked wine is a pleasant kind of burnt sweetness. The overall smell of oxidation leans more toward acrid or decaying.

To my nose, the aroma of a truly cooked wine supersedes its oxidized component. When I smell the purposely-cooked Madeira, the more prominent among the aromas is caramel, with a hint of sulfurous reduction that reminds me of cooked onions—I pick up the oxidation but underneath the caramel.

In the first thread on this subject, someone mentioned that he has smelled butterscotch in heat damaged wine but never caramel. I find that interesting, too, because to make butterscotch you cook sugar as you would to make caramel but you add cream.

A major component in cream is lactic acid, which happens also to be a component in finished wine that has gone through malo-lactic fermentation, converting malic to lactic acid. So, it makes sense to me that the smell of butterscotch would show up in such wines if they become cooked.

Also, as a way of seemingly refuting my claim that caramel describes the smell of cooked wine, the gentleman who mentioned butterscotch also pointed out that caramel requires not only cooked sugar but also cooked amines (I presume in the sugar).

I accept that. I also accept that wine contains amines as well as sugar and ethanol, the alcohol in wine, which, when cooked, has a vaguely sweet smell. Wine that undergoes natural malo-lactic fermentation normally has a high amine count (Wikipedia provides a pretty good definition of amines—click below).

In the second thread on this subject, I recount a wine cooking experiment that I did the Cooked 2 link below.

All of this leads me to believe that when people identify a wine flaw with the descriptor “cooked,” they likely aren’t always talking about a wine that has been cooked. The question then is: what are they talking about?


Cooked 1

Cooked 2

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2008. All rights reserved.

2 Responses to “If you can’t stand the heat…”

  1. winophite says:

    Well those links were interesting, although cooked1-lengthy, and Amine- technical. I recently posted my tasting notes on a bottle of 06 Gnarly Head old vine Zin; in it I included a light caramel aroma and taste. I found it pleasant and have recommended it to friends, never even thought about a cooked aspect (of course I’m still a novice). I do love carmelized onions and really love pinapple, (going to have to try that garlic one). Also going to have to find a bottle of “Madeira”. Is that what it is labeled as? I suppose someone at the store will be able to direct me. WP

  2. Thomas says:

    Madeira is the name of the island and the wine. There are five different Madeira wines and a few producers. The wines are not cheap, but quite good. They are brandy-fortified–about 18% alcohol.

    You see from those links how I try to pin down the technical, while many try to perpetuate the guess work. 😉