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What a crust of (exceptional) bread can teach about wine

Posted by Stephen Meuse  September 16, 2011 11:08 AM

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In addition to putting us in the path of tropical storm Irene, a recent visit to southwestern Vermont put us back in the neighborhood of artisan bread baker Doug Rountree. We profiled Doug, left, in a December 2010 story in the Globe's Food pages.  To say the guy makes wonderful old timey bread doesn't begin to describe the miracles worked nightly in his handbuilt hut of a bakehouse in Shushan, New York.  The ex hotel chef's gnarly loaves don't leave the few towns right around him, so we always stock up when we're in the area.

It was while munching a toasted heel of Doug's Granny Omi wheat boule early this morning that I was struck in a way I hadn't been before by the thoroughness with which the flavors are integrated into crust and crumb; in particular how the acid note provided by Doug's years-old starter infuses the loaf with an appealing tang. 

It makes sense that the tangy presents as something knit into the bread, as it were, because even before the mass of material becomes bread, the tang is already present -- in the starter.  It isn't something added later.

It made me think about how some wines show this same kind of knitted quality and others don't, and how in certain wines acidity, tannin, fruit and oak (if in play) can all be present, but  experienced separately. I find wines like this hard to appreciate, no matter what other good qualities they possess. 

Acid that behaves this way is a particularly puzzling and disturbing experience for me. If the acid - like the tang in the starter - was there from the beginning (all grapes have it) how is it  that acidity can occasionally seem like a bystander?  

It seems that integration (as the process is usually called when speaking of wine) just doesn't happen as suddenly in good wine as it does in good bread. It's one reason many wines benefit from some measure of time in tank, barrel, or bottle during which their constituent parts have leisure to negotiate the terms of intimacy. Perhaps something like this same process goes on in bread, wildly accelerated by the oven's heat.  

The disturbing part comes when the suspicion arises that acidity not on speaking terms with the rest of the wine may be acting that way because instead of coming out of the vineyard with the grapes it came out of a bag in the winery. Acidification is legal in California (as is watering, a subject for another day).  There, rapid fruit development depresses acids as quickly as grape sugars rise.  The current trend toward super ripe grapes practically guarantees that natural acid levels aren't adequate to make balanced wine. 

I'm neither a winemaker nor a chemist, but I have my doubts that acidity that comes as a corrective step can be as readily or as perfectly integrated as acidity that's there from the get go. At least that's what my toasted crust of Granny Omi tells me.

If I were a winemaker I would want to make wine the way Doug Rountree makes bread.   


Ellen Bhang

About By the Glass

Ellen Bhang writes about food and wine and reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe. Wine is the focus of her degree in the Gastronomy master's program at Boston University. She can be reached at


Read more of Stephen Meuse's columns at

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