You often hear four anatomical terms used to describe wine – nose, legs, body, and backbone or spine. We talked about the “nose” or aroma a couple of weeks ago, but what in the world is wine doing with structural body parts? Why does something in a bottle have a body, legs and spine? Is it going to get up and walk away? Or stand in the corner and talk to you?
This week we’ll take a look at legs. Legs is a term of art for the streaks of liquid coming down the glass after you’ve tipped the glass and then put it back down flat. (They can also occur just above the liquid line in a glass even if you haven’t tipped it, but they’re easier to spot after you’ve tipped the glass, for instance to look at the color of the wine.) The more those strands form rather than remaining in a film, and the slower they move down the glass, the more legs the wine has. You’ll often hear that the more legs a wine has, the richer and higher in quality it is, but that’s not true. As usual, it all comes back to physics (and here you thought you were going to read about wine!)
What’s really happening is an interaction between the water and alcohol in the wine. There are a few things at work at once: the first is that the alcohol allows the wine to coat the glass in a film. If you put water on a surface like glass, you’ll see that it tends to form beads rather than spreading out in a thin layer. Alcohol allows the liquid to coat the surface instead of forming beads. (Technically, this is called decreasing the surface tension, since the mixture of alcohol and water has a lower surface tension than water alone). The second is that the alcohol evaporates quickly from the film, leaving more water, which tends to clump together. Finally, gravity takes over and forces the liquid back down the side of the glass. The liquid has less alcohol in it than before, and a higher surface tension, which makes it run down the side in streaks rather than in a film.
This means that any wine with a reasonable amount of alcohol will have “legs,” and you can’t tell the difference between a 16% alcohol California Zinfandel and a 13% alcohol French Merlot on legs alone. Any grease or dust on the inside of the glass will interfere with the production of legs, no matter how “fine” the wine. In the end, legs in wine are more a function of how clean the glass is than anything else (assuming we’re talking about glass here, and not plastic).
How did the myth of legs and quality start? Our guess is that it’s because of another physical property, viscosity. Viscosity is more or less a measure of how slowly a liquid flows, and “thicker” liquids are usually more viscous – think of the difference between a thick barbecue sauce and soy sauce, for example. Slow-moving legs appear to be more viscous than fast-moving liquids, and we associate more viscous liquids with richness in our minds (think of all those ads for “thick and rich” spaghetti sauce). Plus, some of it is just wishful thinking: it would really be nice to have a way to tell if a wine is rich or not just by looking at it, wouldn’t it? Alas, it doesn’t work that way. So don’t worry about your wine making a run for it, legs or no. And look to first vine for descriptions about the richness of our wines, and save the crystal for your local fortune teller!
Now to the recipe. This week, we’re walking back over to Napa to dine with Michael Chiarello (we wish, anyway, but we adapted this recipe from one of his). Since it’s getting cooler out, we thought you’d enjoy his Chicken alla Vendemmia, celebrating the grape harvest. It’s actually made with grapes and is has a fabulous sauce, so be sure to serve it with something that will soak everything up. You might be tempted to use bottled grape juice, but please don’t, since the result will be much sweeter and less complex. The dish has lots of flavor and needs an equally rich wine with it, like Domaine de Montvac’s Cuvée Vincila 2005. Chicken with red wine? Why not – after all, they’ve both got legs!
ps — first vine got its first mention in a food blog. How cool is that?! And it couldn’t be nicer. Thanks, Jim! Click here for the post and here for Jofish and Jim’s food blog. Be sure to try the chocolate sauce and the sourdough bread (not necessarily together, though!)
Chicken alla Vendemmia
2 pounds seedless red grapes
4 large bone-in, skin-on chicken breast halves, or 4 bone-in, skin-on chicken leg quarters
One and a half teaspoons fennel seed (ground is fine if you have it)
One-quarter teaspoon ground coriander seed
One-quarter teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Half a cup of thinly-sliced shallots
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary (or 1 teaspoon dried)
Half a cup of chicken broth (canned is fine)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Puree the grapes in a blender, then strain through a sieve, pressing on the solids to extract as much juice as you can. You should have more than 2 cups of juice. If you’re using whole fennel seeds, grind them in a spice grinder, or put them in a plastic bag and pound them with a pot or other heavy object to crush them. Combine with the coriander and pepper. Salt the chicken on both sides, then divide the spice mixture among the pieces and rub it into both sides of each piece.
Heat a large skillet that you can put in the oven. Add the oil, then brown the chicken really well all over, starting skin side down. This will take at least 8 to 10 minutes total. Put the skillet in the oven and cook until the chicken is done (cut a piece to see), about 15 minutes or so for breasts, about 25 minutes for leg quarters. Transfer the chicken to a plate and cover with foil to keep warm.
Pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of fat from the skillet. Add the shallots and rosemary and cook over moderate heat for about 5 minutes. While they’re cooking, bring 2 cups of the grape juice to a boil in a saucepan (drink the rest as the cook’s treat!) Then add the grape juice and boil hard until reduced by half, another 5 minutes or so. Be sure to scrape up any of the browned bits sticking to the pan and mix them in. Add the stock and any juices from the chicken in the plate, and simmer 2-3 minutes until the mixture is creamy. You’ll have about a cup of sauce. Taste it for salt and pepper. Put the chicken back in the pan for a minute, then serve with all the sauce.