The TARA Technique
A guide to assessing how well a wine will age.
T.A.R.A – the four secret ingredients to wines that age well
(If the irony of TARA being used as an acronym to unlock the secrets of graceful aging is lost on you, download the season of Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars).
In the matter of Science vs. Booze…
But why do we need an acronym? Can’t we just check the wine’s “Best Before” date? Alas, no. Because, despite the fact that wine has been drunk for thousands of years by hundreds of very clever, curious, well-funded and highly-motivated individuals, no one has discovered a sure-fire way to predict exactly how long a wine will take to reach its peak. Or reduce itself to vinegar.
But surely someone at some point must have figured it out?
Nope. And perhaps part of the reason is because, while it might be possible to punch variables into a complex algebraic equation and decipher a best-before date, it’s more enjoyable to punch a hole in a cork and decipher the location of your nearest glass. So no one really bothers.
Which brings us back to the need for T.A.R.A.
Because while it may not seem as sciencey as an algorithm, we can at least make some snappy-but-educated guesses as to how long a wine may continue to improve…or at least survive by examining the prevalence of tannins, acidity, residual sugar, and alcohol in a wine. (This info is almost always available under “technical specs” on the winemaker or estate website).
If wine was a poor inner-city neighbourhood, oxygen molecules would be juvenile delinquents looking to break stuff, and tannins would be those selfless social workers, who keep them out of mischief by teaching them to knit, or play badminton.
Tannins form part of a group of compounds called polyphenols that bond to a whole bunch of other chemicals in weird and wonderful ways. One of the chemicals they like to bond to is oxygen. These delinquent oxygen molecules would otherwise set about wreaking havoc with certain elements in the wine, but INSTEAD, the oxygen hangs out with these phenolic compounds and can, given the right opportunities and a good education, actually become healthy citizens, who contribute to society.
While tannins may busy themselves with both each other, and youthful, anarchic oxygen molecules, acidity’s trump card is its ability to make life awfully unpleasant for any bacteria that may cause wine to spoil prematurely.
If tannins are social workers, Acidity is Simon Cowell on X-Factor destroying the self-esteem of young hopeful bacteria everywhere. It does this by shifting the pH of the solution down the scale to a point where bacteria cannot survive.
“In general, a wine should have a pH of somewhere between 3 and 4 to be stable and not allow bacteria to grow and thrive,” Max Meindl, all-round organic chemistry biscuit, and superbly knowledgeable founder of Max on Wine.
“If wine was a poor inner-city neighbourhood, oxygen molecules would be juvenile delinquents looking to break stuff…”
If bacteria are high schoolers on prom night, sugar is the semi-palsied history teacher monitoring the distance between adolescent bodies on the dance floor. “Always leave room for the Holy Ghost”, says Professor Sugar, totally cutting the grass of every bacterium looking to get a legover before Jocund Day can stand tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
There are various mechanisms by which sugar creates highly unromantic settings for would-be bonking bacteria (they don’t actually bonk), but the only mechanism I’d suggest further reading on at present is that of water activity.
If you want to learn more about how sugar reduces water activity, and therefore stops bacteria from having a right old time, this is as good a link as any to start you off. And here is piece from admirably conscientious Royal Coffee on role of WA in green coffee beans. In case you were looking to branch out.
While the aim of this piece has been to avoid getting technical, I just think it’s cool the way that alcohol deals with bacteria. Alcohol acts like the blob from the 80s horror film “The Blob”. It dissolves lipids in a bacteria’s outer membranes, and then, when the poor little critter starts to bleed out like a doomed high school cheerleader in the back of jalopy, the alcohol rushes into the cell and starts denaturing proteins. Meditate on that one when you’re next hungover, and you’ll realise, “heck, I got off pretty darn lightly with nausea and a headache!”