Bordeaux Bashing! Is It Justified?

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bordeauxWell, what if your neighborhood market increased their prices 200% over ten years. They might come in for a little criticism.  An average release price for 1st growth Bordeaux wines in 2000 was $424. By 2010 the average release price was around $1000 per bottle and will be substantially more when they are ready to drink. Bordeaux has priced themselves out of the market of wine lovers and are now chasing the nouveau riche in Asia, who are looking for status symbols. So some Bordeaux bashing is well deserved.

But Bordeaux also comes in for criticism because of its unique ranking system. In 1855, in preparation for a world exposition, wine merchants ranked “left bank” Bordeaux properties according to the price of their wines and the vineyards’ reputation. First growths were the most expensive and celebrated, 5th growths were the least so, although worthy of being in the game. (The “right bank” was excluded and they now have their own classification system) If you weren’t on the list, marketing your wines was a challenge. It is remarkable that the ranking, with only minor modifications, is still in use. Despite the fact that vineyards have changed ownership, generations of winemakers have come and gone, tastes have changed dramatically, and so has the weather, the Bordelais still use this ranking system to determine price and quality.

Is this classification still relevant? The Wine Elite and the San Diego Wine Society fearlessly came to the rescue last Saturday, setting out to answer this question with a blind tasting. We tasted five Bordeaux wines each from a different growth. Limitations of budget and availability prevented us from tasting wines of the same vintage so there are limitations to this “test”. The five Bordeaux were as follows:

1st Cru   Château Margaux 2004

2nd Cru Château Durfort Vivens 2010 (Margaux)

3rd Cru Château Langoa Barton 2003 (St. Julian)

4th Cru Château Brainaire Ducrux 2006 (Pauillac)

5th Cru  Château Haut-Bages-Libéral 1995 (Pauillac)

Are these classifications even a rough guide to wine quality? Well, clearly the Chateau Margaux is worthy of its status. Although 2004 was an average vintage, this beautiful wine has the classic Margaux elegance with lovely floral notes to offset the rich blueberry flavors and dry, silky minerality. But the 2nd Growth from Durfort Vivens was a bit of a puzzle. Plenty of intensity and lots of earth notes but rough around the edges—the acidity and tannins were not integrated. This wine needs 5 more years in the cellar but it has the stuffing to age well.

The 3rd and 4th growths were similar with black current and leather aromas and a soft, supple palate. But the Langoa Barton had more weight and presence than the Brainaire which seemed flat and a little dull and neither had the power of the (still young) Durfort Vivens.

The surprise was the 5th Cru Haut-Bages. Despite its age, it has plenty of fruit left mixed with mushroom and pencil lead, and a refined palate with soft, round tannins. This wine displays all the virtues of even a moderately priced, well-aged Bordeaux.

So what conclusions can we draw? It is difficult to compare wines of such sharply varying vintages and this is too small a sample to count as more than a single data point. But with one exception, I thought the ranking of these Chateaux conforms to their quality level. (There was of course a good deal of disagreement on that point among the participants.) The one exception?  I suspect the Haut-Bages deserves better than its 5th Crus rank. Yes it is hide bound, officious, subject to corruption and surely inhibits creativity, but this ranking system is not without its virtues. It preserves the focus on terroir which the French value highly and, if you know the system, gives consumers a good idea of what is in the glass.

I came away from this tasting with the thought that Bordeaux will be back. It is widely reported that, with the wine market now a global market brimming with quality wine from all over the world, wine lovers have moved away from the staid, over-priced Bordeaux. They do have to get their pricing in line with global markets. But this tasting brought home to me the fact that Bordeaux wines exhibit a distinct style that is not duplicated anywhere else in the world. There is nothing like a well-aged Bordeaux.

To break up all this “dirt and acid”, 5 other wines were included within our blind tasting. But there was never any doubt when we were tasting one of the Bordeaux. I suspect wine lovers after traveling far and wide will still want to sample that dirt and acid from time to time.

The other 5 wines were:

Le Pont 2010 Bandol

Pierre Amadieu 2011 Vacqueyras

Nada Fiorenzo Barbaresco 1998

La Conreria Priorat 2009

Windsor Oaks Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Estate Reserve Sonoma

Budget Wine: Smoking Loon Red Loonatic Red Wine Blend California NV

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smooking loonRed Blends are the new black. All the big wineries are making them, and their sales have been on the upswing for several years.  Although some of the best wines in the world are blends, this new breed of supermarket blends are  inexpensive and have the reputation for being sweet. They are aimed at a younger crowd just graduating from drinking soda pop.

Given that reputation, I’ve ignored them. But I’ve always respected Smoking Loon, a brand of budget wines made by the Sebastiani family, so I decided to finally try this one, which is a blend of nine grapes led by 28% Syrah.The results are decidedly mixed.

This wine is as aromatic as any inexpensive red I’ve come across. Dark cherry, smoke, dark chocolate, vanilla and cedar notes compete for attention; a very interesting nose. But for anyone accustomed to dry wine this is hard to drink.

The soft, fruit-forward palate gives way to big, cloying caramel flavors, and some awkward acidity that turns the finish sour. There are no tannins to integrate the acidity; the wine is seriously out of balance.

At 16 g/l of residual sugar this wine should carry warnings about tooth decay. If you have just discovered adult beverages then congratulations and give this a try. But it is just too sweet for anyone accustomed to real wine although it might pair well with ribs smothered in barbecue sauce.

Score: 80/100

Price: $5-$10

Alc: 13%

Why is Wine Extraordinary?

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old bottlesIt is not just a beverage but a revelation, almost a spiritual experience for some people. For others, wine is a subject that commands years of deep and sustained attention. Why?

David White asks a variety of sommeliers for their answers:

A “great wine,” Madrigale contended, “offers an honest reflection of where it came from…

“Wine is not just a beverage,” he said. “It’s a story.” …

Consider older wines. They’re a connection to the past and each bottle has a story to tell. I’ll never forget the evening a friend shared a 1961 Château Ausone.

The estate is one of Bordeaux’s most celebrated, and 1961 was a legendary vintage. The wine was stunning—still fresh and vibrant—but that was almost beside the point. In 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated and France was still at war with Algeria. So while tasting the wine, much of my focus was on those who made it and the world they inhabited.

But there is something missing in this explanation.

It is true that wine tells a story about its place of origin or its vintage year written in the flavors and textures of the wine itself–the weather, the soils, the sensibility of a culture and, of course, the decisions of the winemaker all leave their marks that can be read off the features of the wine.

But many things have origins and a story. Yet they don’t fascinate the way wine does. Anything from the past—a book, a dish, an old toy—has an origin and often its story is written in the margins or in the tarnished finish. But these objects don’t necessarily stimulate the imagination. An ordinary book written in 1961 is just a book. In the absence of some personal connection you might have to it, its origin and story are not a matter of significance.

Why then should an Ausone made in 1961 be so captivating?

Some wines stimulate the imagination because in addition to having an origin and a story they are  beautiful. Their beauty is not incidental to the story; it is what stimulates us to care about it.

Contrary to what White claims, the fact that the “61” Ausone  was stunning is not beside the point; its beauty is what turns the mind toward the story, induces in us that curiosity and exploratory impulse that feeds passion.

Stories are inert, just dead facts, unless they somehow stimulate the imagination and beauty is one effective stimulus.

Some wines are so articulate at telling stories because their complexity and depth make the story worth telling. Had the Ausone been oxidized I doubt its story would have been at all interesting.

It has become a cliché to extoll the story-telling capacity of wine. But we should not forget that, in the end, it is about flavor.

Some Really “buggy” Winemakers

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microbesWe know soil influences the taste of wine. Expert tasters can identify the region a wine comes from by identifying taste components, and wine sourced from vineyards with the same weather often has a significantly different flavor profile. But scientists are not sure how soil influences the wine, and the scientific consensus has changed over time.

Will Lyons has a quick summary of the evolution of the science of terroir:

…in the late 1990s, the prevailing wisdom was that the vine’s roots acted as a sort of vacuum pump, sucking up nutrients from the ground, thus giving the wine its distinctive mineral character. In the recent update of his book “Wine Science,” biologist Jamie Goode highlights the process of cation exchange, whereby roots trade hydrogen ions with cations attached to negatively charged soil particles.

But recent studies have focused more on the importance of vines’ water retention, saying that constant access to water—but not too much or too little—is the key to producing good wine.

More recently, scientists have shifted their attention to soil microbes. This report from last November summarizes research from a UC Davis team:

They found that the structure of the microbial communities varied widely across different grape growing regions. The data also indicated that there were significant regional patterns of both fungal and bacterial communities represented in Chardonnay must samples. However, the Cabernet Sauvignon samples exhibited strong regional patterns for fungal communities but only weak patterns for bacterial communities.

Further tests showed that the bacterial and fungal patterns followed a geographical axis running north-south and roughly parallel to the California coastline, suggesting that microbial patterns are influenced by environmental factors.

Taken together, these and other results from the study reveal patterns of regional distributions of the microbial communities across large geographical scales, the study co-authors reported.

One group of microbes was associated with chardonnay musts from the Napa Valley, another from  Central Valley and a third from Sonoma. We can’t infer a cause from a correlation but the correlation is striking enough to be interesting.

Maybe it’s not the crisp, flinty taste of limestone we detect in that Chardonnay but the influence of some “creepy crawlys” with long Latin names. Tasting notes of the future might extol the buoyant, infectious flavors of  Clostridium Achromobacter

Melville Estate Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills 2012

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melville chardA good wine is kinetic, moving about the mouth in undulating waves of  complementary flavors. This Chardonnay from the western side of Santa Rita Hills has that cool weather dynamism that defines the newer breed of California Chardonnay.

Slender and lean but brisk and full of vigor, the Melville has a wonderful evolution on the palate.  Nutmeg and hazelnut succeed fleeting apple flavors until they too give way to swelling tides of minerality, ending in a powerful, persistent finish as satisfying as you will find on a white wine. The nose shows floral notes, sea breeze, and lemon prevailing over the standard roast pear and red apple which appear as background notes.

There is no malolactic fermentation to round off the flavors and the use of neutral oak keeps the vanilla and butter in check. A little steely and uncompromising. Poised, self-possessed and focused without being overly friendly, yet reeking of quality like Lady Mary of Downton Abbey.

I love this wine.

Score: 93/100

Ave. Price: $23

Alc: 14.5

Budget Wine Review: Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel 2012 California

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bogle zinBogle, as usual, hits the mark with this one, with grapes sourced from old vine vineyards in the Sierra Foothills and Lodi.

Good intensity but with some alcohol on the nose. The trade-off is a melange of lovely baking spice notes, red licorice, and bay leaf, with vanilla surrounding the black cherry core. There is enough fruit to leave an impression of sweetness but savory wins the day.

Very light and svelte on the palate for Zinfandel. The elegant, vivacious mouthfeel, crisp acidity and soft tannins make this a crowd pleaser, despite a short finish. If you’re not a Zinfandel fan try this. You might change your mind. There is not a hint of overripe fruit that often mars this varietal.

Score: 88/100

Price: $8-12

Alc: 14.5%

Should the Wine Critic Be Blind?

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blindtastingsmall1Blind tasting, in which the person tasting the wine is prevented from knowing the producer and/or price and in some cases the variety and region, is thought to be the gold-standard of wine criticism because it preserves objectivity. But some features of a wine cannot be evaluated without knowing variety and producer. You can’t evaluate whether a wine is typical of its variety or consistent with a producer’s style without knowing these facts.

Fred Swan at Norcal Wine produced a terrific summary of the pros and cons of tasting blind. Some critics taste blind and other’s don’t

In a note to Jameson Fink, Harvey Steiman, who reviews the wines of Australia, Oregon and Washington for Wine Spectator, said, “At Wine Spectator every review in New Releases is the result of a blind tasting. We believe that blind tasting insulates our judgments from any bias that might result from knowing producer or price. It’s the fairest and most objective way to allow every wine to show its true character”

Steiman is worried that a critic with an agenda or theory about what wines are best is likely to be biased if tasting non-blind.

But other critics are concerned that blind-tasting excludes important information that users of the criticism want to know:

In a past interview, Antonio Galloni told me, “I generally prefer not to taste blind because the questions readers ask of me require some context.” Reader questions he fields include comparisons of different vintages of a particular wine, wines made by different producers from the same vineyard, differences between vineyard blocks, etc. Therefore, he likes to taste three successive vintages of each wine: the one being reviewed, the preceding vintage and a barrel sample of that upcoming. He, and other reviewers at wineries, will also taste a variety of vineyard designates side-by-side.

I have found blind tasting to be important in training one’s skill as a wine taster. It forces you to really concentrate on what you’re tasting because you are grasping for any scrap of information your senses give you. But I have also found that when tasting blind, I devote so much attention to trying to guess region and varietal that I focus less on quality, which is not a good thing for criticism.

In the end, whether blind tasting is useful or not depends on the purpose of the review. As Swan notes, consumers looking for a good buy benefit if the critic is blind. On the other hand, high-end collectors looking for age-ability and the track-record of a wine need reviews that are non-blind, as do consumers who want to know the story behind a wine.

As for me, on this blog I taste non-blind. That is in part for logistical reasons. It’s a huge challenge for one person to set up blind tastings, not to mention the cost involved in opening 5 or 6 bottles simultaneously.

But more importantly, Edible Arts considers wines as works of art. And I’ve never heard of a film, art, or music critic who evaluates works without knowing as much as they can about the object of their review. All art evaluation requires judgments about how a work compares to others in its genre, how successful it is as a manifestation of its style, what it says about trends, and most importantly what the work means and how the aesthetic features of the work contribute to its meaning.  None of these judgments can be made without knowing who produced the work and what the appropriate categories are for understanding it. Knowing what the work is attempting to achieve is essential for judging whether it achieves it aim or not.

The same holds for wine. Without knowing the varietal, the region, and the producer it is hard to know what the wine is aiming for and what the flavors and textures mean. The winemaker’s vision will in part be a product of where the grapes are grown, the style in which she chooses to make the wine, etc. Whether the wine is successful or not depends on knowing those facts.

Furthermore, unlike most critics, I do not taste many wines in one day. I focus on one wine and how it evolves over the course of an evening and how it  drinks the next day as well, and always in a quiet place with no distractions. I want to see the wine from as many dimensions as possible. It is not at all clear to me how this tasting regime mitigates worries about objectivity. It seems to me the more you taste a wine, the better your chances of uncovering mistaken impressions one gets from an initial tasting.

But at any rate, for my purposes, this multi-dimensionality is more important than objectivity. And that requires non-blind tasting.

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“Culture Wars” in the Wine World

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culture warsAlder Yarrow called the latest debate in the wine world a “culture war”. On one side are fans of the “Parker-palate” –big, high-alcohol wines from  classic grapes advocated by celebrated wine critic Robert Parker. On the other side are  fans of the “new-breed palate”– higher-acidity, lower alcohol, less concentrated wines often from lesser-known grape varieties advocated by Eric Asimov and Jon Bonné.  The occasion was a tasting of unusual Napa wines at the Symposium of Professional Wine Writers. As Yarrow reports:

And then the taste wars began.

Critic Robert Parker penned an update on his bulletin board from his travels in Asia suggesting that his colleagues, Lisa Perotti-Brown and Jeb Dunnuck thought the wines were lousy, and that the tasting was a “disaster.” My friend David White shared his thoughts about this fairly extreme characterization of the session on his blog, Terroirist.

Perotti-Brown and Dunnuck chimed in confirming their low opinions of the wines, and then the conversations spread like wildfire from there.

A number of Parker subscribers wrote to suggest that they enjoyed those wines, and to point out the fact that Perotti-Brown and Dunnuck could be seen as casting aspersions at at least one wine that had scored 94 points and another that scored 97 points in the pages of the Advocate.

As often happens with such controversies, the discussion flared on the Wine Beserkers bulletin board, where it has extended to more than 200 back and forths.

It’s not my intention to wade into the fray of heated debate here, but merely to point out that clearly there’s something of a culture war going on in the American wine world

As is his habit in recent years, it looks like Parker has jumped the shark, condemning anyone who disagrees with him as incompetent.

This is on the heels of an even more fundamental debate that has been fermenting for some years now between what Tom Wark recently called “land-focused” wines vs. “hand-focused wines.

Today, in nearly any thoughtful discussion of fine wine by knowledgeable drinkers, one finds a near universal bias towards Land-Focused or “terroir-driven” wines over “Hand-Focused” or winemaker-driven wines. This land-focused bias—the belief that wines that accurately depict a terroir are “better” wines—is nothing new. Old World wine drinkers and vintners have held this attitude for generations and have codified the bias into appellation laws.

What I’ve been wondering is this: Is a land-focused fine wine bias a more reasonable or legitimate approach to understanding and appreciating fine wine than a hand-focused bias?

Although interesting for those of us who like a good argument, it’s inflationary to call these debates “culture wars”, as Yarrow admits. Unlike the culture wars over gay rights or religion, where human lives and destinies are at stake, these wine wars will have little effect since they will be ignored by most people who will go on drinking what they like.  More importantly, in a real “culture war”, one is forced to choose sides because to sit on the fence is to be complicit in some great harm that will significantly influence the life chances of people affected by it. But in this debate about wine styles no one is forced to choose (except winemakers I suppose). Big alcoholic reds from warm regions are a distinctive style of winemaking enjoyable for their pure deliciousness and intensity. More restrained, elegant wines with high acidity are interesting because of their liveliness, complexity, and sense of place. We can enjoy both and seek out the best examples of each without choosing sides.

Why not let a thousand flowers bloom? Certainly the wine world benefits from diversity like any ecosystem.

As to the distinction between “land-focused” wines vs. “hand-focused” wines, I doubt there is a sharp distinction between the two. The difference is alleged to be the degree to which a winemaker intervenes in the winery to shape the taste of the wine. “Land-focused” wines involve little intervention, allowing the unadorned flavors of the fruit and its location to shine. “Hand-focused” wines are a product of a winemaker’s attempt to shape the wine according to her artistic vision. No doubt, terroir is real and some winemakers seek to preserve it. But winemakers who seek to preserve terroir nevertheless have to interpret what that means and they make countless decisions about when to drop fruit, when to irrigate, sun exposure, when to harvest, not to mention fermentation temps, time to macerate, etc. all in the name of preserving terroir’s signal. Each winemaker will have a different take on it. This is obvious in, for instance, Burgundy where adjacent vineyard plots tended by different growers and winemakers produce vastly different wines despite strict regulations about winery practices. In the end, even hand-focused wines are “mind-driven”, a product of the winemaker’s artistic vision.

Again, we don’t have to choose one or the other but can appreciate each wine for what it is or perhaps what it is striving to be.

These debates are a sign of a vibrant, reflective culture. But there is no war going on—only people advocating that their own sense of taste must be universal. As the 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant argued, it is the mark of genuine aesthetic judgment that it strives to be universal.

But there is no reason to take up arms.

Wine Review: Chuparosa Vineyards Sangiovese 2009 Ramona Valley

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chuparosaWine is intriguing because, unlike other fruit-based beverages, it expresses a world within a glass. All things of the earth can appear as ephemeral flavors—animal, vegetable, mineral and everything in between. A good wine is like St. Francis of Assisi or Nietzsche’s Zarathustra summoning all the beings in the forest for company, at one with all creation.

On that score, Sangiovese may be the greatest of wines. A good Sangiovese is never about the fruit alone, which is subordinate to the carnal stew of dust or loam giving birth to flowers, herbs, and kernel flavors that remind us of our own earth-bound existence.

To find such wines we usually travel to the hillsides of Montalcino, the small Tuscan town where the Brunello clone of Sangiovese has been planted since the 14th Century—or  you can save the plane fare and travel to the hillsides of Ramona near San Diego.

In the wine world it is sacrilegious to compare upstart regions like Ramona, where serious winemaking has the relative longevity of a fruit fly, to established wine regions with ancient traditions. But we should be willing to give credit where credit is due—it’s what’s in the glass that matters. And what’s in a glass of this Chuparosa Sangiovese (Brunello clone)  will rival most mid-range Brunellos from Montalcino.

The nose is full of aromatic finesse, showing seductive aromas of black cherry wrapped in layers of baked earth, dried flowers, and licorice topped off by vanilla highlights. There is some alcohol apparent as well. In the mouth,  the intense cherry cola core gives way to a long, elegant finish that shows menthol or mint flavors. The evolution on the palate is lovely. Firm but polished tannins provide plenty of foundation for crisp acidity but neither the tannins nor the acidity dominate. Well-balanced, well integrated, it manages to be both pretty and muscular, ethereal and earthy.

Compared to the Italian version, these grapes seem a bit riper, the bitter notes often found in Brunellos are less apparent.  But it is easy to conjure images of medieval villages, wild boar hunts, grilled steak and crostini when sipping this gem.

As with most of the Ramona boutique wines, your best opportunity to taste it is at the winery, in the charming company of Carolyn and Andy Harris in their lovely new tasting room.

Score: 93/100

Price: $26

Alc. 14.6%

Budget Wine: Round Hill Cabernet Sauvignon California 2011

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round hill cabBudget wines pose a dilemma for the wine writer. These are the wines most people drink so if we aspire to keeping people informed about what they drink, we should write about them. But there is a seemingly infinite number of inexpensive ordinary wines, with cute labels and lots of marketing behind them,  that are largely interchangeable, and there is just not much to say about them. With the technology of winemaking having advanced so far, wineries are no longer making undrinkable plonk. But for under $8 it’s hard to make anything but a generic wine that lacks features that might mark it as distinctive.  I’m tempted to tell consumers go ahead and buy the label. What’s in the bottle won’t matter much.

This Round Hill is a drinkable Cabernet from a difficult vintage. A slight smokiness on the nose to contrast with the bell pepper aromas typical of cool-weather Cabernet sets this wine apart. Otherwise it’s a thin, medium bodied, inoffensive mid-week dinner wine with enough acidity to sing backup to your meal, although it turns a bit astringent and unpleasant on the finish. This wine avoids the excessive sweetness of some bottom shelf options. It doesn’t pretend to be big and avoids the sin of excessive ripeness. At the low end of its price range it’s a good deal.

Round Hill is one of Rutherford Wine Company’s labels, a family-run, medium-production winery in Napa.

Score: 82/100

Alcohol: 13%

Price: $8 Ave. (I found it for $5)

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