A prior blog in which I explored a defect in wine (see “Fatuous Fermentation; Causes and Remedies” 9/23/2016) reminded me of a simple rule I formulated years ago and wrote about. Now that I have a wider readership, it is time to revisit it.
To me there are two basic categories of wine defects. The first is chemical. These include premature oxidation, cork taint, secondary fermentation, contamination with Brett or other organisms, too much sulfur, to name a few. These problems mostly originate at the vineyard or winery and represent technical problems in winemaking.
The second category, the one I’d like to focus on, is that of aesthetic defects. These are problems with style. The wines may be drinkable, – assuming they don’t also have chemical defects – but they are not quite right. This category is more subjective and requires experience and knowledge to appreciate.
Here’s my simple rule related to aesthetics: What’s on the bottle should match what’s in the bottle.
If not, there’s a problem.
What’s on the bottle, is information. Not the useless, hifalutin nonsense that often inhabits back labels, but rather the simple, objective information always present on the front of the bottle. Let’s explore front labels:
: This is the year in which the wine was bottled. One has to always be mindful of whether a wine tastes young or old for the stated vintage. Take a Chardonnay for example that is two years old and is already caramelized, or a New World Cabernet of the same age, thin in fruit and light in color. These are wines that have aged too fast. Not good!
By comparison any wine that tastes young for its vintage is desirable. In this regard Bordeaux outshines others. Take for example this 1995 Chateau Pichon-Baron from Pauillac, that appeared in a recent Friday night tasting. Still young and tight, I commented in my notes, big fruit. After more than two decades, it tasted as if five years old.
As with people, youthful appearance in wine is valued; older than stated age is not.
: New World wines come with their varietals clearly stated on the front label. The wine has to taste like what is expected of that varietal. Many don’t.
To me the worst offenders in this category are California whites. Pandering to commercial interest, California winemakers have an uncanny ability to take any white wine grape and make it taste like domestic Chardonnay.
Pinot noir is another varietal manipulated for profit. In an appeal to palates that prefer “big” wines, domestic winemakers often fortify it with Syrah – a not-so-well-kept secret in the wine world – thereby altering the essence of this delicate grape. The French do it too, but for another reason: to bulk up the wine in thin years.
Bottom line: if the wine does not possess the salient features of the varietal on the label, it is no good.
Region: Geography matters. The terroir of the grape leaves its stamp on the wine extracted from it.
Old World wines from France, Italy and Spain often have their terroir of origin stated on the front label, rather than the varietal. Above you see one from the Graves region of Bordeaux. These have their own unique styles, subtle sometimes, obvious at other times.
American front labels also mention terroir in the form of appellations, e.g. Napa, Sonoma, Willamette Valley, Walla Walla etc. Although more subtle than their Old World counterparts, these appellations also deliver their own unique style, the main reason for their existence as a trademark.
Wines that do not smell and taste like what is expected of their locale, are no good.
A recent example of this comes from the famed Berkeley wine merchant Kermit Lynch who complained that Bordeaux is making nothing but Napa Cabernet. While the statement is too broad, it is true for many lesser contemporary Bordeaux, especially from St. Emillion. Kermit’s complaint is that these wines feature too much fruit, alcohol and oak, no different than many coming out of Napa and Sonoma.
This move toward what I call “the Coca-Cola-ization” of wine, erasure of terroir identity, is now widespread throughout the world and, in my opinion, quite dismaying.
Many front labels feature special designations that fetch higher prices. The most common in America is Reserve
. Wines derived from special vineyards, either famous ones like To-Kalon in Napa, or single named vineyards are increasingly common and carry stiff price tags.
One expects something extraordinary from such announcements, but is often disappointed. As in the rest of our economy, – take cars for example – such designations turn out to be nothing but a marketing gimmick to charge more money.
A special designation that does not deliver a special experience is no good!
There you have it. Start paying attention to what’s on versus what’s in, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll sharpen your aesthetic appreciation of wine.