Do You Really Want a Wine that Smells like Blood or Asparagus?

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bloody meatThe hot buzz word in the wine world over the past few years is “authenticity”, which Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop define as wine with a sense of place, wine that exudes characteristics that come from the vineyard, region or vintage in which the grapes were grown. Authentic wines have been gently handled in the winery so that the unique character of the terroir is not covered up or destroyed.

Making and drinking authentic wines requires a willingness to accept what the location or vintage is giving you even if it isn’t ideal.

I don’t have empirical data to support this assumption but I would guess far more people favor fruit flavors such as blackberry or strawberry over flavors such as cat’s pee, asparagus, or diesel fuel. Does anyone actually prefer bloody meat to lemon zest? (I do, but more on that in a minute). Yet, if we prefer authentic wines we must develop a sensibility that welcomes these less highly regarded flavor notes. Because sometimes and in some places, these less favored flavors are the more authentic—they are what the vintage or region is giving you.

Thus, someone who professes a preference for authentic wines assumes a certain burden—the task of learning to appreciate aroma profiles and taste sensations that are off the beaten track, assuming off course that they are in balance. This is especially true of emerging wine regions. Encouraging them to make wines that taste like Napa or Bordeaux robs them of that authenticity that so many wine lovers today endorse.

You really can’t have it both ways, demanding authenticity but only when it conforms to a conventional standard. The point of valuing authenticity is that the outcome is not just conformity to an ideal or standard but represents something distinctive or original.

As to my preference for bloody meat over lemon zest,  I almost always prefer the quirky to the predictable. The fact that fermented grape juice can smell like bacon, sweaty saddles or tar is a source of endless fascination. Lemon zest is lovely but doesn’t scream originality.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives on Three Quarks Daily

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Budget Wine: Joel Gott Sauvignon Blanc California 2017

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joel gott sauv blancThis is a blend of grapes sourced from several regions in California and harvested in late August before the scorching end of summer heat in 2017. The result is a spot on 2018 Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list.

Owned by Trinchero, although Joel Gott and his wife Sarah are still involved with the winemaking, this is a relatively high scorer each vintage and represents excellent value if you like tropical styles of Sauvignon Blanc.

Honeydew melon, a bit of pineapple and an undercurrent of apricot are the primary aroma notes and they are expressed with both clarity and delicacy.

The palate adds lime and ginger highlights, supported by a rich, warm mouthfeel on a medium frame. The finish is lovely terminating with lingering salinity.  This wine achieves its shapely contour by sacrificing some of Sauvignon Blanc’s searing acidity but the wine is sufficiently refreshing and doesn’t cloy. The key is the graceful transition between rich midpalate and more  focused finish that maintains a halo of fresh tropical fruit even as the richness condenses and the saline minerality surges.

Sumptuous and stylish but with a delicate smile, locked in sympathetic vibration with Bebel Gilberto’s Aganju

Score: 90

Price: $12 (Purchase Here and widely available in supermarkets and wine shops)

Alc: 13.9%

Myths of the Wine World #4: Most Red Wines are Aged in Oak Barrels

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oak barrels in storagePart of the romance of wine, especially red wine, is that it is lovingly stored in oak barrels for months or years while it slowly develops the flavors and textures that make it worth drinking. Look at the label of most red wines and a few whites and you are likely to find some reference to oak. But alas, read more carefully, because for wines under $20 (which is about 90% of wine sold in the U.S) you will seldom see a reference to “barrels”. This is because most wines under $20 get their oak flavors from oak adjuncts—staves, chips, or segments—and never see the inside of an oak barrel. (There are exceptions. Some European appellations mandate the use of oak. This is especially true in Spain where even relatively inexpensive wine at the Crianza level must be aged in barrel.)

The reason has to do with both cost and efficiency. A new, 60 gallon American oak barrel can cost $400 dollars or more and French oak is over $1000 per barrel, and sometimes quite a bit more, depending on type and quality. Most wineries cannot afford to sell wine for under $20 if they must purchase new oak barrels. Aging in oak barrels also takes time, lots of space for storing the wine, and the barrels are difficult to move creating logistical problems and requiring more labor in the winery, all of which increases the cost of production.

By using oak adjuncts, the oak flavors can be extracted more quickly, the level and type of oak flavor can be precisely adjusted (at least for winemakers experienced at using them), and the wine can be stored more efficiently until ready to be bottled.

Should you care whether your budget wine is oaked in an actual barrel? Probably not. Unlike the early days when they were first introduced, oak adjuncts are now a quality product made in many different styles allowing winemakers to precisely calibrate their oak program to the aesthetic style they seek. Furthermore, there is some evidence suggesting that few people can detect the difference between the effects of oak barrels vs. skillfully employed oak adjuncts. Most winemakers making premium, fine wine still prefer oak barrels because the slow rate at which oxygen is transferred softens the wine and improves mouthfeel. But this slow-transfer effect can by mimicked by micro-oxidation technology that most large wineries employ. In fact some very fine, expensive wines are made using micro-oxidation and oak adjuncts with no apparent loss of quality. (Many fine winemakers use oak adjuncts in the fermentation stage of production to provide color stability as well)

No doubt, traditional barrel aging is still the preferred method for aging fine wine in part because it isn’t yet clear that micro-oxidation is an adequate substitute for traditional methods. Many winemakers who have tried both return to barrels because they prefer the result.

But for less expensive wines, well, they wouldn’t be less expensive if it were not for oak adjuncts.

As to whether we should be OK with the wine industry’s lack of transparency regarding their use of adjuncts, that’s another question. Marketing materials almost invariably leave the impression that even cheap wines are aged in barrels by mentioning oak or oak aging leaving us to infer actual barrels were used. If they were to explicitly mention barrels they would run afoul of labeling laws forbidding the use of false or misleading statements on the label, although I have no idea how strictly enforced this rule is with regard to oak programs.

In general I prefer more information about methods and processes used in making a wine including how it was oaked. But the movement toward more transparency doesn’t appear to be making much headway and I suspect that most budget wine drinkers don’t care.

Myth #1 is here.

Myth #2 is here

Myth #3 is here.

Winemaking and Regulation

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mega purpleMany European appellations have very detailed regulations about what grape varietals can be used in their wines, and in many cases they dictate specific wine production practices that must be used in order to use the appellation designation on the bottle. By contrast, U.S. appellations have much less restrictive regulations giving winemakers a lot more freedom to make the wines they want to make.

As wine writer Katherine Cole points out, there are some proposals in the U.S, especially in Oregon’s Willamette Valley,  to tighten up regulations about what percentage of a region’s grapes and stated variety must be in the blend. She goes on to describe recent controversies over labeling regulations in the U.S. and then wonders whether we’re drifting toward a more European model, going so far as to speculate about a European style crus system where certain vineyards are designated as superior. Esther Mobley, wine columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, puts the question directly:

“Will this emulation of Europe at some point endanger our distinctively American spirit of experimentation when it comes to planting vineyards?”

Tom Wark weighs in emphatically:

No. There is absolutely no chance that American labelling laws will move toward a European model and require wines that have a specific appellation on the bottle also be produced with specific grape varieties or be made with specific winemaking techniques. It’s not even a possibility. Nor is it possible that an official vineyard hierarchy will emerge in any winemaking region in America.

I found myself agreeing with Tom. It’s a very large leap from demanding Willamette Valley wines be made from 100% Willamette Valley fruit to specifying allowable varietals, vineyard yields, pick dates, or oak regimes. But then I read a comment on Tom’s blog that shifts the debate to a slightly different register.  Commenter Tom Elliot writes:

Jim Bernau from Willamette Valley Vineyards points out that “it is illegal in Oregon-labeled wine to use additives commonly used to make mass-produced Pinot Noir in California… (such as c)olor and mouthfeel concentrates, called Mega Purple, Ultra Red, Purple 8000 and Red 8000…”. It is not difficult to imagine other states adopting similar laws or regulations. Furthermore, questions have been raised as to whether Copper Cane has used any of these additives in their Oregon Pinot Noirs that were vinted in California, as it’s speculated they did in Meiomi (formerly owned by Joe Wagner of Copper Cane and now owned by Constellation, the manufacturers of Mega Purple). Currently, there’s a call for a Federal investigation into this. If that happens and it turns out to be true than it is not legal for those Copper Cane wines to carry an Oregon appellation.

I found this comment interesting. Part of the value of the “American Spirit of experimentation” is that winemakers can experiment to create more interesting, more differentiated wines. Differences are, after all, what makes wine interesting. While the European model creates sharp differences between regions, it tends to homogenize differences within regions.

But is the freedom to add color and mouthfeel concentrates really in that “spirit of experimentation” that produces differentiation? Color and mouthfeel concentrates make wines look richer and feel smoother. They tend to make wines taste the same by cancelling vintage variation and textural differences. This is fine for consumers who want homogeneous “supermarket” wines. But if you’re a wine region trying to differentiate yourself from competitors, you may not want winemakers using additives that will make your wines taste like industrial plonk.

For regions, unlike California, that don’t have a stake in mass produced wine it is not out of the question that they might regulate some winemaking practices if it gives them a competitive advantage.

Wine Review: Saviah The Stones Speak Syrah Walla Walla Valley 2015

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saviahI have never tasted a wine like this. But then I say that about every wine I taste sourced from The Rocks AVA, a relatively new AVA on the Oregon side of the Columbia River just south of Walla Walla Washington. The Rocks District bills themselves as one of the most distinctive AVA’s in the world, and I think, for once the marketing is accurate. The wines show astounding minerality.

An errant swarm of aromas, briny green olive, barnyard, crushed rock, and floral notes surround dark berry, an intense, heady mélange that signals worlds colliding and new ones being formed.

The palate features a gloriously long, linear midsection of succulent, earth-toned, juiciness that slowly loses heft as it evolves into an ethereal cloud of black licorice. Finally, at risk of fading, the wine re- launches with a pointed, laser-like finish, an angular, electric charge that carries a citric and mineral note. The tannins are fingers of smooth mastery, the acidity settles in gently, yet the finish bursts like imprisoned lightning.

An evolution like none other, this wine is deliciously strange.

A wine of pent-up tension and latent revelation, perhaps apocalyptic since it meshed well with TV on the Radio’s DLZ.

Story and technical details: Saviah is an award winning winery named as one of the top 100 wineries by Wine and Spirits Magazine in 2010. Grapes were harvested from the Funk Estate Vineyard. Aged for 12 months in French oak puncheons, 20% new.

Score: 92

Price: $50 (Purchase here)

Alc: 14.6%

We Are Getting Closer to a World in Which Consumers Can Buy the Wine They Want

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libdibAs the wine world waits for the Supreme Court to, hopefully, put another nail in the coffin of the 3 tier distribution system, wine retailers and small wineries will benefit from another development—LibDib (Liberation Distribution) and Republic National Distributing Company, the second largest alcohol distributer in the U.S., are teeming up to expand LibDib’s online distribution model to 22 additional states.

Here is why this is an important development.

In the three-tier distribution system, which was deliberately designed after prohibition to be an inefficient market , with the exception of purchases made directly from the winery, a consumer can buy wine only from a retailer or restaurant. And a restaurant or wine shop can buy only from a distributor. If a retailer wants to offer its customers a boutique wine and their distributor doesn’t carry it, they are out of luck. (California is an exception allowing wineries to sell directly to restaurants and other retailers). Because of industry consolidation, most wine is sold by large distributors who want to deal only with large producers. Because they can buy large quantities from a large producer they get better prices, have fewer shipping hassles because they deal with only a few companies, and by working only with large producers they don’t have to worry about running out of a particular wine.  If you’re a small winery these large distributors are simply not interested in promoting and selling your wines.

The result is that it’s impossible for retailers to get their hands on wines from small wineries who lack distribution.

LibDib (aka Liberation Distribution), a San Jose California company, was invented to solve this problem for retailers. It is an Internet distribution platform that levels the playing field for small producers by efficiently connecting producers with retailers and eliminating many of the pricing and marketing practices of the big distributors. Because it is a wholly online platform, LibDib doesn’t needs a large sales staff or warehouse space thus bringing down the cost of distribution. There is no minimum purchase and any winery regardless of size can have their product distributed through LibDib. The problem has been that, until this deal with Republic, LibDib operated only in California and New York.

By teaming with Republic, LibDib will have access to the 22 states in which Republic operates, and Republic benefits from the sophisticated web operation developed by LibDib.

As a practical matter, this means that if you’re a sommelier buying wine for a restaurant in, for instance, Colorado, and you taste a lovely Tempranillo on a visit to Texas, you can order it through LibDib if the winery has signed on to work with LibDib.

It is one of the greatest of ironies, that in a country so dedicated to “free markets”, when it comes to alcohol we let oligarchs supported by government policy dictate our choices.

Budget Wine Review: Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Aged in Bourbon Barrels Monterey 2016

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mondavi bourbon barrelsThis sounds like a gimmick, right? But it got me to buy the bottle so maybe it’s a successful marketing strategy. Bourbon flavored wine is not something I want to drink. I like bourbon and I like wine, but separately please. Thankfully, this doesn’t really taste like bourbon although there is a bit of caramel on the midpalate and a wood laced finish that comes from the barrels. I’ve tasted several wines aged in bourbon barrels and they have never been particularly impressive. But for a budget wine, this one is actually not bad. Despite pushing the sweetness boundary for a Cab, the barrel aging gives the wine some depth and layers that under $15 Cabs often don’t have.

Warm and comforting with a half-hearted mule kick at the end. The nose shows ripe black cherry, toasty oak, and chocolate. The medium weight palate is soft and smooth up front, with a touch of caramel sweetness midpalate and a medium length finish of sweet oak and grainy tannins that gives the wine some rusticity and heft. Recommended because it is a bit different from other comparably priced brands and I like the finish. Any time you can say that about a budget wine, it’s a good day.

Bourbon influence of course calls for the blues. Taj Mahal and Jimmie Smith together make a good rendition of smooth but rustic.

Technical Notes: Only a portion of the blend is aged in new oak and used bourbon barrels for at least 3 months.

Score: 87

Price: $14

Alc: 14.5%

Why Wine Styles Change: The High Alcohol Revolution

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napa vineyardsI’ve been thinking about what drives changes in wine styles—consumer demand, winemaker experimentation, the influence of critics and writers, some combination of these?

Take for instance the popularity of high-alcohol Napa Cabernet and Chardonnay beginning in the mid 1980’s. In the 1970’s the best producers in Napa seemed intent on emulating French wine styles. Alcohol levels were typically around 12.5% and apparently Napa wines tasted similar to French wine. In the famous Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, many of the judges mistakenly identified the California wines as French. Yet, by the late 1980’s, Napa wines were exhibiting increasing alcohol and fruit ripeness.

What is the explanation of the change? Global warming likely doesn’t explain the dramatic explosion in fruit ripeness over the course of just a few years.

One explanation might be that consumers wanted these riper styles. The mid-1980’s saw a substantial increase in wine consumption in the U.S. including many novice drinkers who tend to prefer the sweeter, smoother wines made from riper grapes. But I doubt these novice drinkers were drinking premium Cabernet or Chardonnay. Low priced budget wines would not have had high alcohol since wines above 14% would have been taxed at a higher rate and technology for removing alcohol did not yet exist. In general, I think consumers respond to and reinforce trends; they don’t create them.

Of course, on this issue of ripeness and high alcohol, the influence of the wine critic Robert Parker is relevant. Parker famously preferred rich, ripe wines and criticized the complacent, old-school winemaking that he thought still had too much influence in France. Parker started his newsletter in 1978. But he was not particularly well known until 1982 when he attracted attention as the only critic proclaiming the substantial virtues of that vintage in France. As consumers embraced his 100 pt. scoring system, winemakers began to make wines aimed at garnering high scores leading to rich, sumptuous, powerful wines that would dominate the market for decades.

But many of the wine making reforms advocated by Parker—riper fruit, lower yields, better sorting, and more new French oak—had already been advocated by Emile Peynaud, the influential French oenologist who used his position at the University of Bordeaux to promote what came to be known as the International Style, essentially wines with the qualities endorsed by Parker. The impetus toward riper fruit was already in the works before Parker came on the scene.

Also during the late 1980’s, phylloxera was discovered in Napa, and many wineries replanted with new rootstock and clones that produced sugar more easily. New trellising systems were put in place that brought more sunlight to the grapes and modern yeasts were developed that were more efficient at converting sugar to alcohol.

There is a certain logic to ripeness especially for California that in the end might explain this massive shift in wine styles. If California could compete with Bordeaux and Burgundy by producing ripe fruit more consistently, why not go even further with what California does well? Unlike Bordeaux and Burgundy, Napa has lots of sun in summer extending well into the fall. Sun is California’s competitive advantage. Why not make it their signature? In other words, if you’re looking to capture a variation that sets you apart from your competition, for California, ripeness is the path of least resistance.

No doubt Parker had a great deal of influence, but I think a larger factor was a natural evolution, a tendency built into wine grape growing in California that winemakers captured and advanced.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives on Three Quarks Daily

Jamie Goode On Fire

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29520781-a-cartoon-man-with-his-hair-on-fireIn all the activity surrounding Thanksgiving last week, I fear Jamie Goode’s insightful post about faux “champions” of the wine consumer might have gotten buried. So I’ll take this opportunity to reinforce his main point. Wine is inherently complex and if we over-simplify it we risk destroying the qualities that make wine compelling.

So in this new narrative of wine the cast and plot are simple.

On the one side we have the baddies. This shady crowd consists of the wine trade at large, and anyone who has wine expertise, or who finds wine interesting, and enjoys the culture of wine, fine wine, natural wine, sharing interesting bottles with geeky friends, small production wines, wine books and wine education.

On the other side we have goodies: the consumers. These are people who don’t know much about wine, don’t want to spend much on it, but really enjoy their wines and get a lot of pleasure out of them, who drink with friends, who are happy most of the time. They are simple, joyful folk.

It’s clear which side any right thinking person would be on, right?

….

We’re not like the rest of the wine trade,’ they say. ‘We get you. We are on your side. All this wine complexity? It’s nonsense. There’s nothing to see. Just enjoy the wines you are already drinking. They are great!’

….

The solution? Strip wine of its complexity. Get rid of all the experts with their annoying expertise. Make wine taste nice again. Sweetness is helpful here, because young people have simple tastes and want things to be sweet and easy. Young people are scared away by wine, and would rather drink sodas, alcopops, mixed spirits, fruit ciders and beer.

Needless to say, I agree with Jamie’s jeremiad against these faux populists. The quickest route to getting people to ditch wine for mixed drinks, beer, and soda is to make wine as easy to drink as mixed drinks, beer, and soda. Why drop serious coin on a bottle of wine if it offers the same level of quality and distinctiveness as soda? People are attracted to wine because of its endless and often quite mysterious differences.  The premium wine business is kept afloat by people attracted to wines’ complexity.

I continue to be gobsmacked by people in the wine business who don’t understand this.

Of course, therein lies the problem. If you’re going to be fascinated by wines’ mysterious differences you have to learn to detect them and understand their significance. That requires  a modest commitment albeit a commitment that is inherently pleasurable. I suppose if someone wants satisfaction without commitment then wine isn’t for them. But it’s not like these folks are deprived. There is plenty of simple, sweet wine with cute labels on the bottom shelf at any supermarket. They are deprived of our respect for their choices, but then they haven’t earned it.

I do think Jamie is bit too generous toward “the wine trade at large”. That covers a host of cynical charlatans who sell crap with the same language used to describe wines of genuine quality. We need to remember what the word “pretentious” means. Pretense is a form of pretending. Using extravagant or intricate language to describe extravagant or intricate wines is accuracy. Using that same language to describe ordinary, simple wines is pretense.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives on Three Quarks Daily

Wine Review: Fidelitas Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain 2014

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fidelitasKnown as the Cab King of Red Mountain, Fidelitas’ winemaker and co-owner Charlie Hoppes, makes up to six different expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon each vintage, all from Washington State’s Red Mountain AVA. Hoppes was head winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle in the 1990’s and worked on the early vintages of Col Solare so he knows his way around Washington Cab.

This elegant, savory Cabernet, a blend from several vineyards, brings to mind left bank Bordeaux.

Inky in the glass, dark aromas of black currant and blackberry play well with  hints of red fruit, sweet cedar, dust and a subtle smokiness. On the palate, restrained fruit takes a back seat to coffee as the medium-plus frame shows a firm yet lustrous texture, like polished granite. A graphite seam becomes increasingly prominent resting on lovely, elegant tannins, launching the medium length finish.

Neither dynamic nor deep, the tension between the soft, elegant tannins and the sinewy graphite seam gives this wine a lean, arduous grace with understated strength, which pairs nicely with the polished, hard blues of Jonny Lang’s Lie to Me

Technical Notes: Aged in 58% new French Oak, 17% new American oak.

Score: 91

Price: $50

Alc: 14.4 %