By Al Dereu
When you consider Spanish wines, what usually comes to mind are the reds from the Rioja and Ribera del Duero areas, the sweet and dry sherries from Jerez (the word sherry itself is a vulgarization of the word Jerez), and the sparkling wine called cava from the Penedés area south of Barcelona. Ernest Hemingway, no stranger to a mellowing beverage, mentioned Spain’s excellent and inexpensive dry rosés on and off in his works, but by and large rosés are under the radar In the United States. Rarely does white wine come to mind – and that’s a shame. Spain, as the country with the world’s most total acreage devoted to vineyards, is home to an array of white wines ranging from the exotic, food-friendly albariño to the more neutral, clean, crisp viura and verdejo to the more familiar chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.
Albariño, Spain’s signature white wine, is named for a grape grown in Galicia. It is to Spain what sauvignon blanc is to New Zealand and pinot grigio is to Italy, even more so in that almost nowhere else in the world is this grape grown. Almost exclusively bottled as a varietal (that is, with 100 percent albariño and no other grapes blended in), it is as unique as it is food-friendly. It unquestionably ranks as one of the world’s finest, albeit underappreciated, white wine varieties. It literally has no equal, although if asked to name one I would suggest New Zealand’s ripe yet racy sauvignon blanc. Or course albariño does not show the same herbal/grassy aromas and flavors, but in terms of being relatively light in body and displaying forward fruit as well as assertive, palate-cleansing acidity, New Zealand sauvignon blanc is probably albariño’s closest stylistic cousin
These qualities — light body, searing acidity, and intense minerality — make you think of bottling an ocean breeze. They allow albariño to pair brilliantly with a plate of seafood, shellfish, or, more specifically, paella. Spain’s take on a rice dish, paella is typically studded with scallops, mussels, shrimp, chorizo, and/or chicken. It is finished with sherry and traditionally served in enormous pans designed to serve a dozen or even more at a time. Personally, I wouldn’t dream of eating paella without some albariño on hand. In my mind it certainly ranks as one of the greatest and most natural of food-and-wine pairings around. Albariño will also pair well with any seafood rich in mineral or slate qualities (think oysters), though a lobster drenched in butter would be better served alongside your favorite chardonnay, be it Californian or French white Burgundy.
Albariño’s home is in Galicia, just north of Portugal, and clearly it enjoys its dominating maritime influence. Galicia is lush and verdant, the landscape more reminiscent of Scotland or Ireland than the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. Given the grape’s undeniable success here, it’s hard to fathom why no one has tried to grow it elsewhere. I can’t recall having tried an albariño from any other country. While some experimentation with oak barrel fermentation has yielded modest success, it is the grape’s primary qualities that set it apart. For the most part, I don’t see how barrel fermentation (versus the normal stainless-steel tank) or any degree of aging can improve upon something that is so unique and so good as it is.
Albariño’s Portuguese genetic cousin, alvarinho, is used to make vinho verde. The latter cannot match the former’s exotic nature and in general pales, not only in color, but also in depth and intensity. Vinho verde on the whole is far more neutral in flavor despite its genetic similarity and geographic proximity to albariño.
There is also less variation vintage-to-vintage in the overall quality of albariños than there is with, for instance, wines from Burgundy or Bordeaux in France, where the whims of Mother Nature can wreak havoc on the grapes and resultant wines. Another consequence of this is price fluctuations, as demand for a “good vintage’s” wines inflate its cost to the consumer. Albariño’s prices remain consistent year to year. And its relative obscurity in this country also helps keep down the price tag. A few albariño producers to look for include Martin Codax, Pazo de Señorans, Burgans, and Fillaboa. Some friends and I recently enjoyed a bottle of this last one with tapas at Café Iberico on the near north side of Chicago.
Viura is the most important white grape of the Rioja area in north-central Spain. Rioja is an area far more renowned for its tempranillo-based reds than its whites; some people even think the Spanish word Rioja means red, but it is actually a contraction of “Rio Oja,” a tributary to the Ebro River that runs through the region. Viura makes a far more neutral wine than the aforementioned albariño, lacking the latter’s exotic aromas, flavors, and overall complexity. It has its place, however; if you consider the scorchingly high temperatures typical of the Iberian inland during the summer months, you can readily appreciate its uses. A lighter-bodied, lower-alcohol wine is much easier to drink in unbearable heat – a big, buttery, 14 percent alcohol chardonnay doesn’t quite quench the thirst as well.
I’ve heard some suggest that the full potential of viura has yet to be realized. While I’m not wholly convinced of this, I’d be thrilled to someday learn that there is more to this pleasant little white. Spain is still breaking out of the isolation that gripped the country during the long rule of Francisco Franco, who only passed away 30 years ago. The modernization of the country’s winemaking, investment in new equipment, and total commitment to cleanliness are relatively recent phenomena. For literally centuries, much of Spain “crafted” and drank an oxidized white of little character. So it’s not far-fetched to think there might be uncharted waters even for a grape they’ve grown for hundreds of years.
There has been some experimentation with oak barrel fermentation with mixed results. The Rioja bodega (winery) Conde de Valdemar offers a decent, well-made white, in addition to a stainless-steel tank fermented one. The unoaked white is a great warm-weather quaffer and pairs well with lighter (white) fish and perhaps a simple herb accent – nothing too heavy. An oaky one would seem more suited for scallops with garlic pan-fried in butter.
Verdejo is another indigenous Spanish grape not really cultivated elsewhere. It is grown in Rueda, northwest of Madrid and near the world-class red wine region of Ribera del Duero. Verdejo reminds me most of sauvignon blanc. In fact, sauvignon blanc is also grown in Rueda, and you can find varietal bottlings of both grapes as well as blends of the two together. Light in body and crisply refreshing (noticing a pattern yet?), verdejo can be called upon to quench your summer thirst and complement a salad or herb-seasoned fish or chicken dish.
Even more so than viura-based wines, you’ll rarely if ever encounter much oak influence with Verdejo. One benefit of this is the price – utilizing oak barrels for fermenting or aging wine inherently increases the price of the finished product. While viura and verdejo-based wines may not be the best white wines you’ll ever have, the flip side is that they won’t bleed your wallet dry either. Even $8-15 a pop will get you a good, genuine example of these wines, and that’s really not much to ask for something distinct, food-friendly, clean and easy. Really good albariños cost more along the lines of $13-20 a bottle, which is still relatively inexpensive. A high-quality chardonnay, be it from California or France, could easily cost twice that and more.
Some other Spanish whites that don’t fit into the above categories warrant mentioning. The Huguet family, longtime makers of the Spanish sparkling wine cava, make a “still” (nonsparkling) white called can feixes. It is blended mostly from grapes used for cava: xarello, parellada, and macabeo (the regional clone of viura), with a splash of chardonnay. Xarello has various “correct” spellings, so if you see any word close to this, it’s probably the same grape. This blend displays restrained flavors of lemon and unabashed minerality; this would serve as a good intro to Spanish whites for Pinot grigio fans. It’s available in Chicago, where I live; and I recently found it being poured at a small wine store in Leesburg, Virginia, when I was there for a wedding. The friendly and knowledgeable saleswoman and I agreed that it is definitely different, consistently good, and begging for a plate of oysters or shellfish.
Marqués de Cáceres, a Rioja winery, makes a white rioja called satinela. It is made mostly from late-harvest viura, with some malvasia filling out the blend. It is fairly sweet, hinting at apricots, white peaches, and even white flowers. Unlike some dessert wines, though, this finishes with good palate-cleansing acidity. The winery’s data sheet calls this “a very original wine in Rioja” and recommends having it with “foie gras, curry dishes, [and] sweet and sour dishes,” but I tend to think peach cobbler or poached pears. To offer both the forward fruit flavors and a crisp finish is no small feat in winemaking, especially considering its $10 price tag. In comparison, the world’s most esteemed dessert wines can cost $40 to $100 for a half bottle and much, much more.
Marqués de Alella, in the tiny area of Alella, makes a spritzy white called clasico that is another pleasant pairing with seafood. The area itself is near Barcelona and the Mediterranean so this is far from surprising. It is made from the local grape pansa blanca, which is their variety of the xarello grown nearby for the production of cava.
The winery Gramona makes a blend called gessami from muscat and sauvignon blanc that drinks like an Alsatian gewurztraminer. It is even sold in a tall, thin bottle like the wines from Alsace, France. It is fragrant, fruity, and even a tiny bit sweet. The muscat grape gives it an apricot/ripe peach quality, and the sauvignon blanc lends a floral note to it.
An important rule of thumb when buying Spanish white wines is that they are almost without exception meant to be drunk young. Stick with recent vintages, and if you can, hold up the bottle (if it’s clear glass) to any light: a young, acidic white wine should show a greenish tinge, and anything brownish should be shunned. If it doesn’t look fresh, it’s not likely to taste that way. This holds true for most less-expensive whites, not just Spanish white wines. I’ve heard some talk that albariño’s acidity is intense enough to merit some aging, but I’m unconvinced. I don’t understand why you would try. Exploit its intrinsic qualities: buy and drink them young, young, young. If five or 10 years from now we learn that they do age well, then all the better. For now I’ll stick with what I do know. On that note my thoughts are turning towards how to work some paella into my dinner plans sometime soon.
BARCELONA to SAN SEBASTIAN:
A Guided Food & Wine Lovers Cultural Adventure
Day 1 ~ Barcelona morning market visit and optional cooking demo or guided visit art museum visit. After lunch enjoy a insightful guided tour of the Guadi archtiectural sights including a one-of-a-kind park and unfinished cathedral. Tonight option to sample wines from the Wine Spectator top 100 tonight before a gourmet dinner.
Day 2 ~ Bilbao: Short flight to Bilbao, enjoy dramatic architecture and art of world-acclaimed Guggenheim museum. After lunch transfer to the Rioja wine country and sleepin walled medieval village with underground tunnels & wine cellars for 2 nights.
Day 4 – 6 ~ Rioja Wine Country for 2 night including overnight in medieval villages. Tour both modern and the underground wine cellars and tunnels, learn about defending medieval cities. Memorable central lodging and dinner in historic old town.
Day 6 – 8 ~ San Sebastian for 2 nights: Discover one of Europe’s most beautiful and delicous coastal towns and one that is chock-full of fine eating. Enjoy a private walking tour up to see the visitas from the seaside castle. Later perhaps a spa visit, sample local tapas known as pinxtos perhaps washed down by a crisp local white wine or Rioja red. We also have contact in local culinary clubs for possible visits or cooking demos. Please enquire
SPAIN WINE & FOOD NEWS + WORLD WINE NEWS
Spanish Grapes of the Rioja and other regions include:
TEMPRANILLO: (pronounced: Temp-prah-neeh-you) Also known as Ull de Llebre, Cencibel, Tinto Fino. Red. The Tempranillo varietal is believed to have been brought to Spain by pilgrims during the Crusades and to be a variant of Pinot Noir. (Genetically, it has been determined that there is no relationship between Pinot Noir and Tempranillo; however, there are genertic duplications in the grape varietal – Valdepenas – of California.).
The name derives from the Spanish word temprana, meaning early because the grape usually is harvested during late September. It has generally been planted throughout Spain and in the Rioja region, but thrives particularly well in the Rioja Alavesa. Temparnillo prefers a soil that is rich in calcium and limestone. This varietal is thick-skinned and produces wines of deep-color, but not necessarily high in alcohol. Naturally, Tempranillo tends to be lower in acidity and more “malic,” which means that wines made solely from this varietal will hold back their color but not loose fruit over time. Generally, Tempranillo is blended with small amounts of Garnacha, Mazuelo and/or Graciano to compensate for lack of acidity and longevity.
GARNACHA: (Gar-nah-chah) Red. Also known as Garnacha Tito or Tina, (Grenache in France and America). This varietal, Spanish in origin, is very comfortable in arid conditions; therefore, making it a very successful grape throughout the many areas of Spain. Influenced by the Mediterranean. (It is grown in the Penedès region, where surrounding mountains keep the humid climate locked in.) More commonly used for blending, Garnacha has a relatively long-growing season, but buds break later in the Spring than Tempranillo. Its must is low in malic acid, which can cause easy oxidation. However, the wines it produces are high in alcohol , 15- to 16 percent is not unusual. The wines from Garnacha tend to have a more fruity, sweet flavor, which makes them perfect for Rosès. Red wines produced solely from this grape can be big and clumsy and are not usually produced; although there is a very small handful of bodegas that have vinified 100%-Garnacha wines very successfully.
GRACIANO: (Grah-thee-ah-no) Red. Also known as Morrastel (Courouillade in France; Xres in California), Graciano makes a soft, subtle, aromatic wine that is long-lived; unfortunately it is very low-yielding and prone to disease. It is traditionally picked in mid-October. Today there are more French vineyards under the vines of Graciano than in Spain.
MAZUELO: (Mah-thoo-eh-lo) Red. Also known as Mazuelo Tinto, Cariòena, (Carignan in France). Originally from Aragon in Spain, this varietal is one of the most widely planted varietals in the world. In Spain, however, it is not extensively planted because of its easy tendency to powdery-mildew (a fungus that spreads rapidly). For this reason, the world knows it by Carignan and not by its Spanish name. Mazuelo buds late in the Spring, making it susceptible to frost. It produces high yields, is thick-skinned, rich in color and high in tannins and acidity. As mentioned above, the varietal is very prone to mildew and so wider plantings are not being made.
VIURA: (Vee-ooh-rah) White. Also known as Macabeo, Macabeo Alcanol (Maccabeu in France). Two theories exist as to the origin of this varietal, one is that it is from the Middle East, the other is from Aragon in Spain. Whatever the origins, generally the wines made from this grape today are lighter in style, drier, relatively higher in acid, not easly oxidized, and are aromatic. In the Penedès region of Spain (located in the area around Barcelona), Viura/Macabeo is a predominant grape used in the production of cava. There are over 125,000 acres (50,000 hectares) planted in Northern Spain alone, with only a very small amount of acreage under vine in Southern France and in Algeria and Morocco, where it does very well in arid climate.
MALVASIA: (Mahl-vah-see-yah) White. Also known as Blanca-Roja (Malvasia Fina in Italy and Portugal) takes a back seat to Viura in Spain and Trebbiano in Italy. Believed to have originated in Asia Minor because its name has Greek origins, the true Malvasia is found mostly in Mediterranean countries. The grape is prone to oxidation and rot, but produces a more full-bodied, highly extracted, perfumed wine that is worth aging. It is for this reason that Italy uses it most-notably in its dessert wines. Spain traditionally uses Malvasia for dry, oak-aged wines that are very concentrated.
XARELLO:(Chah-rayl-lo) White. Also known as Pansa Blanca. Used only in Catalonia, where it originated in the production of Cava. It is planted in the lower levels of soils and produces an acidic wine perfect for sparkling wines. This grape is also the preeminant grape used in the small but highly regarded D.O. of Alella where the Parxet winery makes their acclaimed Marques de Alella Clasico from the Xarello grape.
PARELLADA: (Par-eh-yah-dah) White. Also known as Montonec. A native to Catalonia, it grows best in the cooler areas of Penedès. It has a fruity quality and high acidity, which makes it pleasant and, therefore an integral part of Cava.
VITICULTURAL AREAS COVERED
This guide covers the world’s major viticultural regions including Spain. In Western Europe, France and Italy receive the most detailed coverage, followed by Spain, Portugal, and Germany. In North America, California receives significant coverage, reflecting its dominance in the marketplace. The wine regions represented most significantly in wine shops are given much more detailed coverage than minor areas whose wines are rarely seen in or exported to the United States. Consequently, the sections dealing with Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace, and the Rhône Valley in France; Piedmont and Tuscany in Italy; and California receive priority in terms of amount of coverage because those regions produce the world’s greatest wines. In each section there is a thorough analysis of the region’s producers, its overachievers and underachievers, as well as the region’s greatest wine values.
RATING THE PRODUCERS AND GROWERS
Who’s who in the world of Spanish wine becomes readily apparent after years of tasting the wines and visiting the vineyards and wine cellars of the world’s producers and growers. Great producers are, unfortunately, still quite rare, but certainly more growers and producers today are making better wine, with better technology and more knowledge. The charts that follow rate the best producers on a five-star system, awarding five stars and an “outstanding” to those producers deemed to be the very best, four stars to those producers who are “excellent,” three stars to “good” producers, and two stars to those producers rated “average.” Since the aim of this book is to provide you with the names of the very best producers, its overall content is dominated by the top producers rather than the less successful ones.
Those few growers/producers who have received five-star ratings are those who make the world’s finest wines, and they have been selected for this rating because of the following two reasons: First, they make the greatest wine of their particular viticultural region, and second, they are remarkably consistent and reliable even in mediocre and poor vintages. Ratings, whether numerical ratings of individual wines or classifications of growers, are always likely to create controversy among not only the growers but wine tasters themselves. But if done impartially, with a global viewpoint and firsthand, on-the-premises (sur place) knowledge of the wines, the producers, and the type and quality of the winemaking, such ratings can be reliable and powerfully informative. The important thing for readers to remember is that those growers/producers who received either a four-star or five-star rating are producers to search out; I suspect few consumers will ever be disappointed with one of their wines. The three-star growers/producers are less consistent but can be expected to make average to above-average wines in the very good to excellent vintages. Their weaknesses can be either from the fact that their vineyards are not as strategically placed, or because for financial or other reasons they are unable to make the severe selections necessary to create only the finest-quality wine.
The rating of the growers/producers of the world’s major viticultural regions is perhaps the most important point of this book. Years of wine tasting have taught me many things, but the more one tastes and assimilates the knowledge of the world’s regions, the more one begins to isolate the handful of truly world-class growers and producers who seem to rise above the crowd in great as well as mediocre vintages. I always admonish consumers against blind faith in one grower or producer, or in one specific vintage. But the producers and growers rated “outstanding” and “excellent” are as close to a guarantee of high quality as you are likely to find.
Although wine advertisements proclaiming “a great vintage” abound, I have never known more than several viticultural areas of the world to have a great vintage in the same year. The chances of a uniformly great vintage are extremely remote, simply because of significantly different microclimates, soils, and so on in every wine-producing region. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because Bordeaux had great vintages in 1982, 1990, and 2000, every place else in Europe did too. Certainly in both 1982 and 2000, nothing could have been further from the truth. Nevertheless, a Bordeaux vintage’s reputation unfortunately seems to dictate what the world thinks about many other wine-producing areas. This obviously creates many problems, since in poor Bordeaux vintages, the Rhône or Alsace or Champagne could have an excellent vintage, and in great Bordeaux vintages those same areas could have bad years because of poor climate conditions. For California, many casual observers seem to think every year is a top year, and this image is, of course, promoted by that state’s publicity-conscious Wine Institute. It may be true that California rarely has a disastrous vintage, but tasting certainly proves that 1988, 1989, and 1998 are different in style and more irregular in quality than either 1994 or 1995. Yet no other viticultural area in the world has enjoyed as many consecutive great vintages as California has in the 1990s; with the exception of 1998, all have been terrific years for California. In this guide, there are vintage summaries for each viticultural area because the vintages are so very different in both quantity and quality. Never make the mistake of assuming that one particular year is great everywhere or poor everywhere.
TASTING NOTES AND RATINGS
When possible, most of my tastings are done in peer-group, single-blind conditions; in other words, the same type of wines are tasted against each other, and the producers’ names are not known. The ratings reflect an independent, critical look at the wines. Neither price nor the reputation of the grower/producer affects the rating in any manner. I spend three months every year tasting in vineyards. During the other nine months of the year, I devote six- and sometimes seven-day workweeks to tasting and writing. I do not participate in wine judgings or trade tastings for many reasons, but principal among these are: 1) I prefer to taste from an entire bottle of wine, 2) I find it essential to have properly sized and cleaned professional tasting glasses, 3) the temperatures of the wine must be correct, and 4) I prefer to determine the amount of time allocated for the number of wines I will critique.
The numerical rating given is a guide to what I think of the wine vis-à-vis its peer group. Certainly, wines rated above 85 are good to excellent, and any wine rated 90 or above is outstanding for its particular type. While some would suggest that scoring is not well suited to a beverage that has been romantically extolled for centuries, wine is no different from any other consumer product. There are specific standards of quality that full-time wine professionals recognize, and there are benchmark wines against which all others can be judged. I know of no one with three or four different glasses of wine in front of him or her, regardless of how good or bad the wines might be, who cannot say, “I prefer this one to that one.” Scoring wines is simply taking a professional’s opinion and applying a numerical system to it on a consistent basis. Moreover, scoring permits rapid communication of information to expert and novice alike. The score given for a specific wine reflects the quality of the wine at its best. I often tell people that evaluating a wine and assigning a score to a beverage that may change and evolve for up to 10 or more years is analogous to taking a photograph of a marathon runner. Much can be ascertained, but, as with a picture of a moving object, the wine will also evolve and change. I try to retaste wines from obviously badly corked or defective bottles, since a wine from such a single bad bottle does not indicate an entirely spoiled batch. If retasting is not possible, I reserve judgment on that wine. Many of the wines reviewed have been tasted several times, and the score represents a cumulative average of the wine’s performance in tastings to date. Scores do not reveal the most important facts about a wine. The written commentary (tasting notes) that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information than any score regarding the wine’s style and personality, its quality level relative to its peers, and its relative value and aging potential.
Here, then, is a general guide to interpreting the numerical ratings:
Equivalent to an A and given for an outstanding or a special effort. Wines in this category are the very best produced for their type. There is a big difference between a 90 and a 99, yet both are top marks. Few wines actually make it into this top category, simply because there are not that many truly profound wines.
Equivalent to a B in school; such a wine, particularly in the 85-89 range, is very good. Many of the wines that fall into this range are often great values as well. I have many of these wines in my personal cellar.
Represents a C, or an average mark, but obviously 79 is a much more desirable rating than 70. Wines that receive scores of 75-79 are generally pleasant, straightforward wines that lack complexity, character, or depth. If inexpensive, they may be ideal for uncritical quaffing.
A D or an F, depending on where you went to school. It is a sign of an unbalanced, flawed, or terribly dull or diluted wine of little interest to the discriminating consumer.
A point score in parentheses (75-80) signifies an evaluation made before the wine was bottled.
In terms of awarding points, my scoring system starts with a potential of 50 points. The wine’s general color and appearance merit up to 5 points. Since most wines today are well made, thanks to modern technology and the increased use of professional oenologists, most tend to receive at least 4, and often 5, points. The aroma and bouquet merit up to 15 points, depending on the intensity level and dimension of the aroma and bouquet, as well as the wine’s cleanliness. The flavor and finish merit up to 20 points, and again, intensity of flavor, balance, cleanliness, and depth and length on the palate are all important considerations when giving out points. Finally, the overall quality level or potential for further evolution and improvement — aging — merits up to 10 points.
Scores are important for the reader to gauge a professional critic’s overall qualitative placement of a wine among its peers. However, it is also vital to consider the description of the wine’s style, personality, and potential. No scoring system is perfect, but a system that provides for flexibility in scores, if applied by the same experienced taster without prejudice, can quantify different levels of wine quality and can be a responsible, reliable, uncensored, and highly informative account that provides the reader with one professional’s judgment. However, there can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.
For a number of reasons, no one suggested retail price for a particular wine is valid throughout the country. Take Bordeaux as an example. Bordeaux is often sold as “wine futures” two full years before the wine is bottled and shipped to America. This opening or base price can often be the lowest price one will encounter for a Bordeaux wine, particularly if there is a great demand for the wines because the vintage is reputed to be excellent or outstanding. As for other imported wines, prices will always vary for Bordeaux according to the quality of the vintage, the exchange rate of the dollar against foreign currencies, and the time of purchase by the retailer, wholesaler, or importer — was the wine purchased at a low futures price in the spring following the vintage, or when it had peaked in price and was very expensive?
Another consideration in pricing is that in many states wine retailers can directly import the wines they sell and can thereby bypass middlemen, such as wholesalers, who usually tack on their own 25% markup. The bottom line in all of this is that in any given vintage for Bordeaux, or for any imported wine, there is no standard suggested retail price. Prices can differ by as much as 50% for the same wine in the same city. However, in cities where there is tremendous competition among wine shops, the markup for wines can be as low as 10% or even 5%, significantly less than the normal 50-55% markup for full retail price in cities where there is little competition. I always recommend that consumers pay close attention to wine shop advertisements in major newspapers and wine publications. For example, The New York Times’s Living Section and The Wine Spectator are filled with wine advertisements that are a barometer for the market price of a given wine. Readers should remember, however, that prices differ considerably, not only within the same state but within the same city. The approximate price range reflects the suggested retail price that includes a 40-60% markup by the retailer in most major metropolitan areas. Therefore, in many states in the Midwest and in other less populated areas where there is little competition among wine merchants, the price may be higher. In major competitive marketplaces where there are frequent discount wars, such as Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas, prices are often lower. The key for you as a reader and consumer is to follow the advertisements in major newspapers and to shop around. Most major wine retailers feature sales in the fall and spring; summer is the slow season and generally the most expensive time to buy wine.
Following is the price guide I have used throughout the book.
WINE PRICE GUIDE CODES
Inexpensive/less than $10
More than $125
THE ROLE OF A WINE CRITIC
“A man must serve his time to every trade save censure — critics all are ready made.” Thus wrote Lord Byron. It has been said often enough that anyone with a pen, notebook, and a few bottles of wine can become a wine critic. And that is exactly the way I started when, in late summer 1978, I sent out a complimentary issue of what was then called the Baltimore/Washington Wine Advocate.
Two principal forces shaped my view of a wine critic’s responsibilities. I was then, and remain today, significantly influenced by the independent philosophy of consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Moreover, I was marked by the indelible impression left by my law school professors, who in the post-Watergate era pounded into their students’ heads a broad definition of conflict of interest. These two forces have governed the purpose and soul of my newsletter, The Wine Advocate, and of my books.
In short, the role of the critic is to render judgments that are reliable. They should be based on extensive experience and on a trained sensibility for whatever is being reviewed. In practical terms, this means the critic should be blessed with the following attributes:
It is imperative for a wine critic to pay his own way. Gratuitous hospitality in the form of airline tickets, hotel rooms, guest houses, etc., should never be accepted either abroad or in this country. What about wine samples? I purchase more than 75% of the wines I taste, and though I have never requested samples, I do not feel it is unethical to accept unsolicited samples that are shipped to my office. Many wine writers claim that these favors do not influence their opinions. Yet how many people in any profession are prepared to bite the hand that feeds them? Irrefutably, the target audience is the wine consumer, not the wine trade. While it is important to maintain a professional relationship with the trade, I believe the independent stance required of a consumer advocate often, not surprisingly, results in an adversarial relationship with the wine trade. It can be no other way. In order to pursue this independence effectively, it is imperative to keep one’s distance from the trade. This may be misinterpreted as aloofness, but such independence guarantees hard-hitting, candid, and uninfluenced commentary.
Courage manifests itself in what I call the “democratic tasting.” Judgments ought to be made solely on the basis of the product in the bottle, not the pedigree, the price, the rarity, or one’s like or dislike of the producer. The wine critic who is totally candid may be considered dangerous by the trade, but an uncensored, independent point of view is of paramount importance to the consumer. A judgment of wine quality must be based on what is in the bottle. This is wine criticism at its purest, most meaningful. In a tasting, a $10 bottle of petit château Pauillac should have as much of a chance as a $200 bottle of Lafite-Rothschild or Latour. Overachievers should be spotted, praised, and their names highlighted and shared with the consuming public. Underachievers should be singled out for criticism and called to account for their mediocrities. Outspoken and irreverent commentary is unlikely to win many friends from the wine commerce, but wine buyers are entitled to such information. When a critic bases his or her judgment on what others think, or on the wine’s pedigree, price, or perceived potential, wine criticism is nothing more than a sham.
It is essential to taste extensively across the field of play to identify the benchmark reference points and to learn winemaking standards throughout the world. This is the most time-consuming and expensive aspect of wine criticism, as well as the most fulfilling for the critic, yet it is rarely practiced. Lamentably, what often transpires is that a tasting of 10 or 12 wines from a specific region or vintage will be held, and the writer then issues a definitive judgment on the vintage based on a microscopic proportion of the wines. This is irresponsible — indeed, and appalling. It is essential for a wine critic to taste as comprehensively as is physically possible, which means tasting every significant wine produced in a region or vintage before reaching qualitative conclusions. Wine criticism, if it is ever to be regarded as a serious profession, must be a full-time endeavor, not the habitat of part-timers dabbling in a field that is so complex and requires such time commitment. Wine and vintages, like everything in life, cannot be reduced to black-and-white answers.
It is also essential to establish memory reference points for the world’s greatest wines. There is such a diversity of wine and multitude of styles that this may seem impossible. But tasting as many wines as one possibly can in each vintage, and from all of the classic wine regions, helps one memorize benchmark characteristics that form the basis for making comparative judgments between vintages, wine producers, and wine regions.
While I have never found anyone’s wine-tasting notes compelling reading, notes issued by consensus of a committee are the most insipid and often the most misleading. Judgments by committees tend to sum up a group’s personal preferences. But how do they take into consideration the possibility that each individual may have reached his or her decision using totally different criteria? Did one judge adore the wine because of its typicity while another decried it for the same reason, or was the wine’s individuality given greater merit? It is impossible to know. That is never in doubt when an individual authors a tasting critique. Committees rarely recognize wines of great individuality. Sadly, a look at the results of tasting competitions reveals that well-made mediocrities garner the top prizes, and thus blandness is elevated to the status of a virtue. Wines with great individuality and character never win a committee tasting because at least one taster will find something objectionable about the wine.
I have always sensed that individual tasters, because they are unable to hide behind the collective voice of a committee, hold themselves to a greater degree of accountability. The opinion of a reasonably informed and comprehensive individual taster, despite the taster’s prejudices and predilections, is always a far better guide to the ultimate quality of the wine than the consensus of a committee. At least the reader knows where the individual stands, whereas with a committee, one is never quite sure.
Too much wine writing focuses on glamorous French wine regions such as Burgundy and Bordeaux, and on California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. These are important, and they make up the backbone of most serious wine enthusiasts’ cellars. But value and diversity in wine types must always be stressed. The unhealthy legacy of the English wine-writing establishment that a wine has to taste bad young to be great old should be thrown out. Wines that taste great young, such as Chenin Blanc, Dolcetto, Beaujolais, Côtes du Rhône, Merlot, and Zinfandel, are no less serious or compelling because they must be drunk within a few years rather than cellared for a decade or more before consumption. Wine is, in the final analysis, a beverage of pleasure, and intelligent wine criticism should be a blend of both hedonistic and analytical schools of thought — to the exclusion of neither.
It is an inescapable fact that too many of the world’s renowned growers/producers have intentionally permitted production levels to soar to such extraordinary heights that many wines’ personalities, concentrations, and characters are in jeopardy. While there remain a handful of fanatics who continue, at some financial sacrifice, to reject significant proportions of their harvest to ensure that only the finest-quality wine is sold under their name, they are dwindling in number. For much of the last decade production yields throughout the world have broken records with almost every new vintage. The results are wines that increasingly lack character, concentration, and staying power. The argument that more carefully and competently managed vineyards inevitably result in larger crops is nonsense.
In addition to high yields, advances in technology have provided the savoir faire to produce more correct wines, but the abuse of practices such as acidification and excessive fining and filtration have compromised the final product. These problems are rarely and inadequately addressed by the wine-writing community. Wine prices have never been higher, but is the consumer always getting a better wine? The wine writer has the responsibility to give broad qualitative issues high priority.
No one argues with the incontestable fact that tasting is a subjective endeavor. The measure of an effective wine critic should be his or her timely and useful rendering of an intelligent laundry list of good examples of different styles of winemaking in various price categories. Articulating in an understandable fashion why the critic finds the wines enthralling or objectionable is manifestly important both to the reader and to the producer. The critic must always seek to educate and to provide meaningful guidelines, never failing to emphasize that there is no substitute for the consumer’s palate, nor any better education than the reader’s own tasting of the wine. The critic has the advantage of having access to the world’s wine production and must try to minimize bias. Yet the critic should always share with readers the reasoning behind bad reviews. For example, I will never be able to overcome my dislike for vegetal-tasting New World Cabernets, overtly herbaceous red Loire Valley wines, or excessively acidified New World whites.
My ultimate goal in writing about wines is to seek out the world’s greatest wines and greatest wine values. In the process of ferreting out those wines, the critic should never shy away from criticizing those producers whose wines are found lacking. Given the fact that the consumer is the true taster of record, the “taste no evil” approach to wine writing serves no one but the wine trade. Constructive and competent criticism has proven that it can benefit producers as well as consumers, since it forces underachievers to improve the quality of their fare, and, by lauding overachievers, it encourages them to maintain high standards to the benefit of all who enjoy and appreciate good wine.
About Wine: HOW TO BUY WINE
If you have made your choices in advance, buying wine seems simple enough — you go to your favorite wine merchant and purchase a few bottles. However, there are some subtleties to buying wine that one must be aware of in order to ensure that the wine is in healthy condition and is unspoiled.
To begin with, take a look at the bottle of wine you are about to buy. Wine abuse is revealed by the condition of the bottle in your hand. First of all, if the cork has popped above the rim of the bottle and is pushed out on the lead or plastic capsule that covers the top of the bottle, look for another bottle to buy. Wines that have been exposed to very high temperatures expand in the bottle, putting pressure on the cork and pushing it upward against the capsule. And the highest-quality wines, those that have not been overly filtered or pasteurized, are the most vulnerable to the ill effects of abusive transportation or storage. A wine that has been frozen in transit or storage will likewise push the cork out, and though freezing a wine is less damaging than heating it, both are hazardous to its health. Any cork that is protruding above the rim of the bottle is a bad sign. The bottle should be returned to the shelf and never, ever purchased.
Finally, there is a sign indicating poor storage conditions that can generally be determined only after the wine has been decanted, though sometimes it can be spotted in the neck of the bottle. Wines that have been exposed to very high temperatures, particularly deep, rich, intense red wines, often form a heavy coat or film of coloring material on the inside of the glass. With a Bordeaux less than 3 years old, a coating such as this generally indicates that the wine has been subjected to very high temperatures and has undoubtedly been damaged. However, one must be careful here, because this type of sediment does not always indicate a poor bottle of wine; vintage port regularly throws it, and so do the huge, rich Rhône and Piedmontese wines.
On the other hand, there are two conditions consumers frequently think are signs of a flawed wine when nothing could be further from the truth. Some uninformed consumers return bottles of wine for the very worst reason — because of a small deposit of sediment in the bottom of the bottle. In fact, this is the healthiest sign one could find in most bottles of wine. The tiny particles of sandlike sediment that precipitate to the bottom of a bottle simply indicate that the wine has been naturally made and has not been subjected to a traumatic flavor- and character-eviscerating filtration. Such wine is truly alive and is usually full of all its natural flavors. However, keep in mind that white wines rarely throw a deposit, and it is rare to see a deposit in young wines under 2-3 years of age.
Another reason that wine consumers erroneously return bottles to retailers is the presence of small crystals called tartrate precipitates. These crystals are found in all types of wines but appear most commonly in white wines from Germany and Alsace. They often shine and resemble little slivers of cut glass. They simply mean that somewhere along its journey a wine was exposed to temperatures below 40?F. in shipment, and the cold has caused some tartaric crystals to precipitate. These are harmless, tasteless, and totally natural in many bottles of wine. They have no effect on the quality and normally signify that the wine has not been subjected to an abusive, sometimes damaging, cold stabilization treatment by the winery for cosmetic purposes only.
Fortunately, most of the better wine merchants, wholesalers, and importers are more cognizant today of the damage that can be done by shipping wine in unrefrigerated containers, especially in the middle of summer. However, far too many wines are still tragically damaged by poor transportation and storage, and it is the consumer who suffers. A general rule is that heat is much more damaging to fine wines than cold. Remember, there are still plenty of wine merchants, wholesalers, and importers who treat wine no differently than they treat beer or liquor, and the wine buyer must therefore be armed with a bit of knowledge before he or she buys a bottle of wine.
HOW TO STORE WINE
Wine has to be stored properly if it is to be served in a healthy condition. All wine enthusiasts know that subterranean wine cellars which are vibration free, dark, damp, and kept at a constant 55 degrees F. are considered perfect for wine. However, few of us have such perfect accommodations for our beloved wines. While these conditions are ideal, most wines will thrive and develop well under other circumstances. I have tasted many old Bordeaux wines from closets and basements that have reached 65-70? F. in summer, and the wines have been perfect. In cellaring wine, keep the following rules in mind and you will not be disappointed with a wine that has gone over the hill prematurely.
First of all, in order to cellar wines safely for 10 years or more, keep them at 65 degrees F., perhaps 68 degrees, but no higher. If the temperature rises to 70 degrees F., be prepared to drink your red wines within 10 years. Under no circumstances should you store and cellar white wines more than 1-2 years at temperatures above 70 degrees F. Wines kept at temperatures above 65 degrees will age faster, but unless the temperature exceeds 70 degrees, will not age badly. If you can somehow keep the temperature at 65 degrees or below, you will never have to worry about the condition of your wines. At 55 degrees F., the ideal temperature according to the textbooks, the wines actually evolve so slowly that your grandchildren are likely to benefit from the wines more than you. Constancy in temperature is most essential, and any changes in temperature should occur slowly. White wines are much more fragile and much more sensitive to temperature changes and higher temperatures than red wines. Therefore, if you do not have ideal storage conditions, buy only enough white wine to drink over a 1-2-year period.
Second, be sure that your storage area is odor free, vibration free, and dark. A humidity level above 50% is essential; 70-75% is ideal. The problem with a humidity level over 75% is that the labels become moldy and deteriorate. A humidity level below 40% will keep the labels in great shape but will cause the corks to become very dry, possibly shortening the potential life expectancy of your wine. Low humidity is believed to be nearly as great a threat to a wine’s health as high temperature. There has been no research to prove this, and limited studies I have done are far from conclusive.
Third, always bear in mind that wines from vintages which produce powerful, rich, concentrated, full-bodied wines travel and age significantly better than wines from vintages that produce lighter-weight wines. Transatlantic or cross-country transport is often traumatic for a fragile, lighter-styled wine from either Europe or California, whereas the richer, more intense, bigger wines from the better vintages seem much less travel-worn after their journey.
Fourth, I always recommend buying a wine as soon as it appears on the market, assuming of course that you have tasted the wine and like it. The reason for this is that there are still too many American wine merchants, importers, wholesalers, and distributors who are indifferent to the way wine is stored. This attitude still persists, though things have improved dramatically over the last decade. The important thing for you as a consumer to remember, after inspecting the bottle to make sure it appears healthy, is to stock up on wines as quickly as they come on the market and to approach older vintages with a great deal of caution and hesitation unless you have absolute faith in the merchant from whom you bought the wine. Furthermore, you should be confident that your merchant will stand behind the wine if it is flawed from poor storage.
THE QUESTION OF HOW MUCH AGING
The majority of wines taste best when they are just released or consumed within 1-2 years of the vintage. Many wines are drinkable at 5, 10, or even 15 years of age, but based on my experience only a small percentage are more interesting and more enjoyable after extended cellaring than they were when originally released.
It is important to have a working definition of what the aging of wine actually means. I define the process as nothing more than the ability of a wine, over time, 1) to develop more pleasurable nuances, 2) to expand and soften in texture and, for red wines, to exhibit an additional melting away of tannins, and 3) to reveal a more compelling aromatic and flavor profile. In short, the wine must deliver additional complexity, increased pleasure, and more interest as an older wine than it did when released. Only such a performance can justify the purchase of a wine in its youth for the purpose of cellaring it for future drinking. Unfortunately, only a tiny percentage of the world’s wines falls within this definition of aging.
It is fundamentally false to believe that a wine cannot be serious or profound if it is drunk young. In France, the finest Bordeaux, the northern Rhône Valley wines (particularly l’Hermitage and Côte Rôtie), a few red Burgundies, some Châteauneuf-du-Papes, and, surprisingly, many of the sweet white Alsace wines and sweet Loire Valley wines do indeed age well and are frequently much more enjoyable and complex when drunk 5, 10, or even 15 years after the vintage. But virtually all other French wines — from Champagne to Côtes du Rhône, from Beaujolais to the petits châteaux of Bordeaux, and the vast majority of red and white Burgundies — are better in their youth.
The French have long adhered to the wine-drinking strategy that younger is better. Centuries of wine consumption, not to mention gastronomic indulgences, have taught the French something that Americans and Englishmen have failed to grasp: Most wines are more pleasurable and friendly when young.
The French know that the aging and cellaring of wines, even those of high pedigree, are often fraught with more disappointments than successes. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in French restaurants, especially in Bordeaux, the region that boasts what the world considers the longest-lived dry red wines. A top vintage of Bordeaux can last for 20-30 years, sometimes 40 or more, but look at the wine lists of Bordeaux’s best restaurants. The great 1990s have long disappeared down the throats of Frenchmen and -women. Even the tannic, young, yet potentially very promising 1996s, which Americans have squirreled away for drinking later this century, are now hard to find. Why? Because they have already been consumed. Many of the deluxe restaurants, particularly in Paris, have wine lists of historic vintages, but these are largely for rich tourists.
This phenomenon is not limited to France. Similar drinking habits prevail in the restaurants of Florence, Rome, Madrid, and Barcelona. Italians and Spaniards also enjoy their wines young. This is not to suggest that Italy does not make some wines that improve in the bottle. In Tuscany, for example, a handful of Chiantis and some of the finest new-breed Tuscan red wines (e.g., the famed Cabernet Sauvignon called Sassicaia) will handsomely repay extended cellaring, but most never get the opportunity. In the Piedmont section of northern Italy, no one will deny that a fine Barbaresco or Barolo improves after a decade in the bottle. But by and large, all of Italy’s other wines are meant to be drunk young, a fact that Italians have long known and that you should observe as well.
With respect to Spain, it is the same story, although a Spaniard’s tastes differ considerably from the average Italian’s or Frenchman’s. In Spain, the intense smoky vanilla aroma of new oak (particularly American) is prized. As a result, the top Spanish wine producers from the most renowned wine region, Rioja, and other viticultural regions as well tend to age their wines in oak barrels so that they can develop this particular aroma. Additionally, unlike French and Italian wine producers, or even their New World counterparts, Spanish wineries are reluctant to release their wines until they are fully mature. As a result, most Spanish wines are smooth and mellow when they arrive on the market. While they may keep for 5-10 years, they generally do not improve. This is especially true with Spain’s most expensive wines, the Reservas and Gran Reservas from Rioja, which are usually not released until 5-8 years after the vintage. The one exception may be the wine long considered Spain’s greatest red, the Vega Sicilia Unico. This powerful wine, frequently released when it is already 10 or 20 years old (the immortal 1970 was released in 1995), does appear capable of lasting for 20-35 years after its release. Yet I wonder how much it improves.
What does all this mean to you? Unlike any other wine consumers in the world, most American and many English wine enthusiasts fret over the perfect moment to drink a wine. There is none. Almost all modern-day vintages, even ageworthy Bordeaux or Rhône Valley wines, can be drunk when released. Some will improve, but many will not. If you enjoy drinking a 1989 Bordeaux now, who would be so foolish as to suggest that you are making an error because the wine will be appreciably better in 5-10 years?
In America and Australia, winemaking is much more dominated by technology. Though a handful of producers still adhere to the artisanal, traditional way of making wine as done in Europe, most treat the vineyard as a factory and the winemaking as a manufacturing process. As a result, such techniques as excessive acidification, brutally traumatic centrifugation, and eviscerating sterile filtration are routinely utilized to produce squeaky-clean, simplistic, sediment-free, spit-polished, totally stable yet innocuous wines with statistical profiles that fit neatly within strict technical parameters. Yet it is these same techniques that denude wines of their flavors, aromas, and pleasure-giving qualities. Moreover, they reveal a profound lack of respect for the vineyard, the varietal, the vintage, and the wine consumer, who, after all, is seeking pleasure, not blandness.
In both Australia and California, the alarming tendency of most Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays to collapse in the bottle and to drop their fruit within 2-3 years of the vintage has been well documented. Yet some of California’s and Australia’s most vocal advocates continue to advise wine consumers to cellar and invest (a deplorable word when it comes to wine) in Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs. It is a stupid policy. If the aging of wine is indeed the ability of a wine to become more interesting and pleasurable with time, then the rule of thumb to be applied to American and Australian Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays is that they must be drunk within 12 months of their release unless the consumer has an eccentric fetish for fruitless wines with blistering acidity and scorching alcohol levels. Examples of producers whose Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs can last for 5-10 years and improve during that period can be found, but they are distressingly few.
With respect to red wines, a slightly different picture emerges. Take, for example, the increasingly fashionable wines made from the Pinot Noir grape. No one doubts the immense progress made in both California and Oregon in turning out fragrant, supple Pinot Noirs that are delicious upon release. But I do not know of any American producer who is making Pinot Noir that can actually improve beyond 10-12 years in the bottle. And this is not in any way a criticism.
Even in Burgundy there are probably no more than a dozen producers who make their wines in such a manner that they improve and last for more than a decade. Many of these wines can withstand the test of time in the sense of being survivors, but they are far less interesting and pleasurable at age 10 than when they were 2 or 3 years old. Of course, producers and retailers who specialize in these wines will argue otherwise, but they are in the business of selling. Do not be bamboozled by the public relations arm of the wine industry or the fallacious notion that red wines all improve with age. If you enjoy them young, and most likely you will, then buy only the quantities needed for near-term consumption.
America’s most famous dry red wine, however, is not Pinot Noir but Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly from California and to a lesser extent from Washington State. The idea that most California Cabernet Sauvignons improve in the bottle is a myth. Nonetheless, the belief that all California Cabernet Sauvignons are incapable of lasting in the bottle is equally unfounded. Today no one would be foolish enough to argue that the best California Cabernets cannot tolerate 15 or 20, even 25 or 30 years of cellaring.
I frequently have the opportunity to taste 20- to 30-year-old California Cabernet Sauvignons, and they are delicious. But have they significantly improved because of the aging process? A few of them have, though most still tend to be relatively grapy, somewhat monolithic, earthy, and tannic at age 20. Has the consumer’s patience in cellaring these wines for all those years justified the expense and the wait? Lamentably, the answer will usually be no. Most of these wines are no more complex or mellow than they were when young.
Because these wines will not crack up and fall apart, there is little risk associated with stashing the best of them away, but I am afraid the consumer who patiently waits for the proverbial “miracle in the bottle” will find that wine cellaring can all too frequently be an expensive exercise in futility.
If you think it over, the most important issue is why so many of today’s wines exhibit scant improvement in the aging process. While most have always been meant to be drunk when young, I am convinced that much of the current winemaking philosophy has led to numerous compromises in the winemaking process. The advent of micropore sterile filters, so much in evidence at every modern winery, may admirably stabilize a wine, but, regrettably, these filters also destroy the potential of a wine to develop a complex aromatic profile. When they are utilized by wine producers who routinely fertilize their vineyards excessively, thus overcropping, the results are wines with an appalling lack of bouquet and flavor.
The prevailing winemaking obsession is to stabilize wine so it can be shipped to the far corners of the world 12 months a year, stand upright in overheated stores indefinitely, and never change or spoil if exposed to extremes of heat and cold, or unfriendly storage conditions. For all intents and purposes, the wine is no longer alive. This is fine, even essential, for inexpensive jug wines, but for the fine-wine market, where consumers are asked to pay $20 or more per bottle, it is a winemaking tragedy. These stabilization and production techniques thus affect the aging of wine because they preclude the development of the wine’s ability to evolve and to become a more complex, tasty, profound, and enjoyable beverage.
HOW TO SERVE WINE
There are really no secrets for proper wine service — all one needs is a good corkscrew; clean, odor-free glasses; and a sense of how wines should be served and whether a wine needs to be aired or allowed to breathe. The major mistakes that most Americans, as well as most restaurants, make are 1) fine white wines are served entirely too cold, 2) fine red wines are served entirely too warm, and 3) too little attention is given to the glass into which the wine is poured. (It might contain a soapy residue or stale aromas picked up from a closed china closet or cardboard box.) All of these things can do much more to damage the impact of a fine wine and its subtle aromas than you might imagine. Most people tend to think that the wine must be opened and allowed to “breathe” well in advance of serving. Some even think a wine must be decanted, a rather elaborate procedure, but not essential unless sediment is present in the bottle and the wine has to be poured carefully off. With respect to breathing or airing wine, I am not sure anyone has all the answers. Certainly, no white wine requires any advance opening and pouring. Red wines can be enjoyed within 15-30 minutes of being opened and poured into a clean, odor- and soap-free wine decanter. There are of course examples that can always be cited where the wine improves for 7-8 hours, but these are quite rare. Although these topics seem to dominate much of the discussion in wine circles, a much more critical aspect for me is the appropriate temperature of the wine and of the glass in which it is to be served. The temperature of red wines is very important, and in America’s generously heated dining rooms, temperatures are often 75-80 degrees F., higher than is good for fine red wine. A red wine served at such a temperature will taste flat and flabby, with its bouquet diffuse and unfocused. The alcohol content will also seem higher than it should be. The ideal temperature for most red wines is 62-67 degrees F.; light red wine such as Beaujolais should be chilled to 55 degrees F. For white wines, 55-60 degrees F. is perfect, since most will show all their complexity and intensity at this temperature, whereas if they are chilled to below 45 degrees F., it will be difficult to tell, for instance, whether the wine is a Riesling or a Chardonnay.
In addition, there is the important issue of the glasses in which the wine is to be served. An all-purpose, tulip-shaped glass of 8-12 ounces is a good start for just about any type of wine, but think the subject over carefully. If you go to the trouble and expense of finding and storing wine properly, shouldn’t you treat the wine to a good glass? The finest glasses for both technical and hedonistic purposes are those made by the Riedel Company of Austria. I have to admit that I was at first skeptical about these glasses. George Riedel, the head of his family’s crystal business, claims to have created these glasses specifically to guide (by specially designed rims) the wine to a designated section of the palate. The rims, combined with the general shape of the glass, emphasize and promote the different flavors and aromas of a given varietal.
I have tasted an assortment of wines in his glasses, including a Riesling glass, Chardonnay glass, Pinot Noir glass, and Cabernet Sauvignon glass, all part of his Sommelier Series. For comparative purposes, I then tasted the same wines in the Impitoyables glass, the INAO tasting glass, and the conventional tulip-shaped glass. The results were consistently in favor of the Riedel glasses. American Pinot Noirs and red Burgundies performed far better in his huge 37-ounce, 9 1/2-inch-high Burgundy goblet (model number 400/16) than in the other stemware. Nor could any of the other glassware compete when I was drinking Cabernet- and Merlot-based wines from his Bordeaux goblet (model number 400/00), a 32-ounce, 10 1/2-inch-high, magnificently shaped glass. His Chardonnay glass was a less convincing performer, but I was astounded by how well the Riesling glass (model number 400/1), an 8-ounce glass that is 7 3/4 inches high, seemed to highlight the personality characteristics of Riesling.
George Riedel realizes that wine enthusiasts go to great lengths to buy wine in sound condition, store it properly, and serve it at the correct temperature. But how many connoisseurs invest enough time exploring the perfect glasses for their Pichon-Lalande, Méo-Camuzet, Clos de Vougeot, or Maximin-Grunhaus Riesling Kabinett? His mission, he says, is to provide the “finest tools,” enabling the taster to capture the full potential of a particular varietal. His glasses have convincingly proved his case time and time again in my tastings. I know of no finer tasting or drinking glasses than the Sommelier Series glasses from Riedel.
I have always found it amazing that most of my wine-loving friends tend to ignore the fact that stemware is just as important as making the right choice in wine. When using the Riedel glasses, one must keep in mind that every one of these glasses has been engineered to enhance the best characteristic of a particular grape varietal. Riedel believes that regardless of the size of the glass, they work best when they are filled to no more than one-quarter of their capacity. If I were going to buy these glasses (the Sommelier Series tends to run $40-70 a glass), I would unhesitatingly purchase both the Bordeaux and Burgundy glasses. They outperformed every other glass by a wide margin. The magnificent 37-ounce Burgundy glass, with a slightly flared lip, directs the flow of a Burgundy to the tip and the center of the tongue so that it avoids contact with the sides of the tongue, which deemphasizes the acidity and makes the Burgundy taste rounder and more supple. This is not just trade puffery on Riedel’s part. I have experienced the effect enough times to realize that these glasses do indeed control the flow and, by doing so, enhance the character of the wine. The 32-ounce Bordeaux glass, which is nearly the same size as the Burgundy glass, is more conical, and the lip serves to direct the wine toward the tip of the tongue, where the taste sensors are more acutely aware of sweetness. This enhances the rich fruit in a Cabernet/Merlot-based wine before the wine spreads out to the sides and back of the palate, where it picks up the more acidic, tannic elements.
All of this may sound absurdly highbrow or esoteric, but the effect of these glasses on fine wine is profound. I cannot emphasize enough what a difference they make. If the Sommelier Series sounds too expensive, Riedel does make less expensive lines that are machine-made rather than hand-blown. The most popular are the Vinum glasses, which sell for about $20 per glass. The Bordeaux Vinum glass is a personal favorite as well as a spectacular glass not only for Bordeaux but for Rhône wines and white Burgundies. There are also numerous other glasses designed for Nebbiolo-based wines, rosé wines, old white wines, and port wines, as well as a specially designed glass for sweet Sauternes-type wines.
For more complete information about prices and models, readers can get in touch with Riedel Crystal of America, PO Box 446, 24 Aero Road, Bohemia, NY 11716; telephone number (631) 567-7575. For residents of or visitors to New York City, Riedel has a showroom at 41 Madison Avenue (at Twenty-sixth Street).
Two other good sources for fine wineglasses include St. George Crystal in Jeannette, Pennsylvania, at (724) 523-6501, and the all-purpose Cristal d’Arques Oenologist glass. I have found that the latter works exceptionally well with white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Marsanne, and red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, Zinfandel, Gamay, Mourv dre, and Sangiovese. For very fragrant red wines such as those produced from Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, and Grenache, this glass is acceptable, but I prefer other stemware. Designed by Dany Rolland, the gifted oenologist, wife, and partner of Libourne’s Michel Rolland, the dimensions are: height 8 inches (4 1/2 inches of which for the stem); circumference 10 inches at the base of the tulip-shaped bowl, narrowing to 8 inches at the rim; capacity 12 ounces, or a half bottle of wine. Another fine glassware source is Spiegelau from Germany. For information on where their glasses are sold, readers should visit their Web site, www.Spiegelau.com.
And, last but not least, remember: No matter how clean the glass appears to be, be sure to rinse the glass or decanter with unchlorinated well or mineral water just before it is used. A decanter or wineglass left sitting for any time is a wonderful trap for room and kitchen odors that are undetectable until the wine is poured and they yield their off-putting smells. That and soapy residues left in the glasses have ruined more wines than any defective cork or, I suspect, poor storage from an importer, wholesaler, or retailer. I myself put considerable stress on one friendship simply because I continued to complain at every dinner party about the soapy glasses that interfered with the enjoyment of the wonderful Bordeaux wines being served.
FOOD AND WINE MATCHUPS
The art of serving the right bottle of wine with a specific course or type of food has become terribly overlegislated, to the detriment of the enjoyment of both wine and food. Newspaper and magazine columns, even books, are filled with precise rules that seemingly make it a sin not to have chosen the perfect wine to accompany the meal. The results have been predictable. Instead of enjoying a dining experience, most hosts and hostesses fret, usually needlessly, over their choice of which wine to serve with the meal.
The basic rules of the wine/food matchup game are not difficult to master. These are the tried-and-true, allegedly cardinal principles, such as young wines before old wines, dry wines before sweet wines, white wines before red wines, red wines with meat and white wines with fish. However, these general principles are riddled with exceptions, and your choices are a great deal broader than you have been led to expect. One of France’s greatest restaurant proprietors once told me that if people would simply pick their favorite wines to go along with their favorite dishes, they would be a great deal happier. Furthermore, he would be pleased not to have to witness so much nervous anxiety and apprehension on their faces. I’m not sure I can go that far, but since my gut feeling is that there are more combinations of wine and food that work reasonably well than do not, let me share some of my basic observations about this whole field. There are several important questions you should consider:
Does the food offer simple or complex flavors? America’s — and I suppose the wine world’s — two favorite grapes, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, can produce majestic wines of exceptional complexity and flavor depth. However, as food wines, they are remarkably one-dimensional and work well only with dishes that have relatively straightforward and simple flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon marries beautifully with basic meat-and-potato dishes, filet mignon, lamb fillets, steaks, etc. Furthermore, as Cabernet Sauvignon- and Merlot-based wines get older and more complex, they require simpler and simpler dishes to complement their complex flavors. Chardonnay goes beautifully with most fish courses, but when one adds different aromas and scents to a straightforward fish dish — by grilling, or by adding ingredients in an accompanying sauce — Chardonnays are often competitive rather than complementary wines to serve. The basic rule, then, is simple, uncomplex wines with complex dishes, and complex wines with simple dishes.
What are the primary flavors in both the wine and food? A complementary wine choice can often be made if one knows what to expect from the primary flavors in the food to be eaten. The reason creamy and buttery sauces with fish, lobster, even chicken or veal work well with Chardonnay or white Burgundies is because of the buttery, vanilla aromas in the fuller, richer, lustier styles of Chardonnay. On the other hand, a mixed salad with an herb dressing and pieces of grilled fish or shellfish beg for an herbaceous, smoky Sauvignon Blanc or French Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire Valley. For the same reason, a steak au poivre in a creamy brown sauce with its intense, pungent aromas and complex flavors requires a big, rich, peppery Rhône wine such as a Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Gigondas.
Are the texture and flavor intensity of the wine proportional to the texture and flavor intensity of the food? Did you ever wonder why fresh, briny, sea-scented oysters that are light and zesty taste so good with a Muscadet from France or a lighter-styled California Sauvignon Blanc or Italian Pinot Grigio? It is because these wines have the same weight and light texture as the oysters. Why is it that the smoky, sweet, oaky, tangy flavors of a grilled steak or loin of lamb work best with a Zinfandel or Rhône Valley red wine? The full-bodied, supple, chewy flavors of these wines complement a steak or loin of lamb cooked over a wood fire. Sauté the same steak or lamb in butter or bake it in the oven, and the flavors are less complex; then a well-aged Cabernet Sauvignon- or Merlot-based wine from California, Bordeaux, or Australia is called for.
Another telling example of the importance of matching the texture and flavor intensity of the wine with the food is the type of fish you have chosen to eat. Salmon, lobster, shad, and bluefish have intense flavors and a fatty texture, and therefore require a similarly styled, lusty, oaky, buttery Chardonnay to complement them. On the other hand, trout, sole, turbot, and shrimp are leaner, more delicately flavored fish and therefore mandate lighter, less intense wines such as nonoaked examples of Chardonnay from France’s Mâconnais region or Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia area. In addition, a lighter-styled Champagne or German Riesling (a dry Kabinett works ideally) goes extremely well with trout, sole, or turbot, but falls on its face when matched against salmon, shad, or lobster. One further example of texture and flavor matchups is the classic example of a heavy, unctuous, rich, sweet Sauternes with foie gras. The extravagantly rich and flavorful foie gras cannot be served with any other type of wine, as it would overpower a dry red or white wine. The fact that both the Sauternes and the foie gras have intense, concentrated flavors and similar textures is the exact reason why this combination is so decadently delicious.
What is the style of wine produced in the vintage that you have chosen? Several of France’s greatest chefs have told me they prefer off years of Bordeaux and Burgundy to great years, and have instructed their sommeliers to buy the wines for the restaurant accordingly. How can this be? From the chef’s perspective, the food, not the wine, should be the focal point of the meal. They fear that a great vintage of Burgundy or Bordeaux with wines that are exceptionally rich, powerful, and concentrated not only takes attention away from their cuisine but makes matching a wine with the food much more troublesome. Thus, chefs prefer a 1987 Bordeaux on the table with their food as opposed to a super-concentrated 1982 or 1990, or a 1989 red Burgundy over a 1990. The great vintages, though marvelous wines, are not always the best vintages to choose for the ultimate matchup with food. Lighter-weight yet tasty wines from so-so years complement delicate and understated cuisine considerably better than the great vintages, which should be reserved for very simple food courses.
Is the food served in a sauce? Years ago, at Michel Guerard’s restaurant in Eugénie-les-Bains, I ordered fish served in a red wine sauce. Guerard recommended a red Graves wine from Bordeaux, because the sauce was made from a reduction of fish stock and a red Graves. The combination was successful and opened my eyes for the first time to the possibilities of fish with red wine. Since then I have had tuna in a green peppercorn sauce accompanied by a California Cabernet Sauvignon (a great match), and salmon sautéed in a red wine sauce happily married to a young vintage of red Bordeaux. A white wine with any of these courses would not have worked. Another great match was veal in a creamy morel sauce with a Tokay from Alsace.
A corollary to this principle of letting the sauce dictate the type of wine you order is when the actual food is prepared with a specific type of wine. For example, coq au vin, an exquisite peasant dish, can be cooked and served in either a white wine or red wine sauce. I have found when I had coq au vin au Riesling, a dry Alsace Riesling with it is simply extraordinary. In Burgundy I have often had coq au vin in a red wine sauce consisting of a reduced Burgundy wine, and the choice of a red Burgundy makes the dish even more special.
When you travel, do you drink locally produced wines with the local cuisine? It is no coincidence that the regional cuisines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Provence, and Alsace in France, and Tuscany and Piedmont in Italy, seem to enhance and complement the local wines. In fact, most restaurants in these areas rarely offer wines from outside the local region, thus mandating the drinking of the locally produced wines. One always wonders what came first, the cuisine or the wine? Certainly, America is beginning to develop its own regional cuisine, but except for California and the Pacific Northwest, few areas promote the local wines as appropriate matchups with the local cuisine. For example, in my backyard a number of small wineries make an excellent white wine called Seyval Blanc, which is the perfect foil for both the oysters and blue channel crabs from the Chesapeake Bay. Yet few restaurants in the Baltimore-Washington area promote these local wines, which is a shame. Regional wines with regional foods should be a top priority not only when traveling in Europe but also in America’s viticultural areas.
Have you learned the best and worst wine and food matchups? If this entire area of wine and food combinations still seems too cumbersome, then your best strategy is simply to learn some of the greatest combinations as well as some of the worst. I can also add a few pointers I have learned through my own experiences, usually bad ones. Certain wine and food relationships of contrasting flavors can be sublime. Perhaps the best example is a sweet, creamy-textured Sauternes wine with a salty aged Stilton or Roquefort cheese. The combination of two opposite sets of flavors and textures is sensational in this particular instance. Another great combination is Alsatian Gewurztraminers and Rieslings with ethnic cuisine such as Indian and Chinese. The juxtaposition of sweet and sour combinations and the spiciness of both cuisines seem to work beautifully with these two wines from Alsace.
One of the great myths about wine and food matchups is that red wines work well with cheese. The truth of the matter is that they hardly ever work well with cheese. Most cheeses, especially favorite wine cheeses such as Brie and double and triple creams have a very high fat content, and most red wines suffer incredibly when drunk with them. If you want to shock your guests but also enjoy wine with cheese, serve a white wine made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape such as a Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé from France. The dynamic personalities of these two wines and their tangy, zesty acidity stand up well to virtually all types of cheese, but they go especially well with fresh goat cheeses.
Another myth is that dessert wines go best with desserts. Most people seem to like Champagne or a sweet Riesling, sweet Chenin Blanc, or a Sauternes with dessert. Putting aside that chocolate-based desserts are always in conflict with any type of wine, I find that dessert wines are best served as the dessert or after the dessert. Whether it be cake, fruit tarts, ice cream, or candy, I’ve always enjoyed dessert wines more when they are the centerpiece of attention than when they are accompanying a sweet dessert.
If wine and food matchups still seem too complicated for you, remember that in the final analysis, a good wine served with a good dish to good company is always in good taste. à votre santé!
WHAT’S BEEN ADDED TO YOUR WINE?
Over the last decade people have become much more sensitive to what they put in their bodies. The hazards of excessive smoking, fat consumption, and high blood pressure are taken seriously by increasing numbers of people, not just in America but in Europe as well. While this movement is to be applauded, an extremist group, labeled by observers as “neoprohibitionists” or “new drys,” has tried to exploit the individual’s interest in good health by promoting the image that the consumption of any alcoholic beverage is an inherently dangerous abuse that undermines society and family. These extremist groups do not care about moderation; they want the total elimination of wine (one of alcohol’s evil spirits) from the marketplace. In the process, they have misrepresented wine and consistently ignored specific data that demonstrates that moderate wine drinking is more beneficial than harmful to individuals. Unfortunately, the law prohibits the wine industry from promoting the proven health benefits of wine.
Wine is the most natural of all beverages, but it is true that additives can be included in a wine (the neoprohibitionists are taking aim at these as being potentially lethal). Following are those items that can be added to wine.
Acids: Most cool-climate vineyards never need to add acidity to wine, but in California and Australia, acidity is often added to give balance to the wines, as grapes from these hot climate areas often lack sufficient natural acidity. Most serious wineries add tartaric acidity, the same type of acidity found naturally in wine. Less quality-oriented wineries dump in pure citric acid, which results in the wine tasting like a lemon/lime sorbet.
Clarification agents: A list of items that are dumped into wine to cause suspended particles to coagulate includes morbid names such as dried ox blood, isinglass, casein (milk powder), kaolin (clay), bentonite (powdered clay), and the traditional egg whites. These fining agents are designed to make the wine brilliant and particle free; they are harmless, and top wineries either don’t use them or use them minimally.
Oak: Many top-quality red and white wines spend most of their lives aging in oak barrels. It is expected that wine stored in wood will take on some of the toasty, smoky, vanilla flavors of wood. These aromas and flavors, if not overdone, add flavor complexity to a wine. Cheap wine can also be marginally enhanced by the addition of oak chips, which provide a more aggressive, raw flavor of wood. But remember, oak only works with certain types of wine, and its usage is analogous to a chef’s use of salt, pepper, or garlic. In excessive amounts or with the wrong dish, the results are ghastly.
Sugar: In most of the viticultural regions of Europe except for southern France, Portugal, and Spain, the law permits the addition of sugar to the fermenting grape juice in order to raise alcohol levels. This practice, called chaptalization, is performed in cool years when the grapes do not attain sufficient ripeness. It is never done in the hot climate of California or in most of Australia, where low natural acidity, not low sugars, is the problem. Judicious chaptalization raises the alcohol level by 1-2%.
Sulfites: All wines must now carry a label indicating that the wine contains sulfites. Sulfite (also referred to as SO2 or sulfur dioxide) is a preservative used to kill bacteria and microorganisms. It is sprayed on virtually all fresh vegetables and fruits, but a tiny percentage of the population, especially asthmatics, are allergic to SO2. The fermentation of wine produces some sulfur dioxide naturally, but it is also added to oak barrels by burning a sulfur stick inside the barrel in order to kill any bacteria; it is added again at bottling to prevent the wine from oxidizing. Quality wines should never smell of sulfur (a burning-match smell) because serious wine-makers keep the sulfur level very low. Some wineries do not employ sulfites. When used properly, sulfites impart no smell or taste to the wine and, except for those who have a known allergy to them, are harmless to the general population. Used excessively, sulfites impart the aforementioned unpleasant smell and a prickly taste sensation. Obviously, people who are allergic to sulfites should not drink wine, just as people who are allergic to fish roe should not eat caviar.
Tannin: Tannin occurs naturally in the skins and stems of grapes, and the content from the crushing of the grape skins and subsequent maceration of the skins and juice is usually more than adequate to provide sufficient natural tannin. Tannin gives a red wine grip and backbone, while also acting as a preservative. However, on rare occasions tannin is added to a spineless wine.
Yeasts: While many wine-makers rely on the indigenous wild yeasts in the vineyard to start the fermentation, it is becoming more common to employ cultured yeasts for this procedure. There is no health hazard here, but the increasing reliance on the same type of yeast for wines from all over the world leads to wines with similar bouquets and flavors.
Organic wines, produced without fungicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers, with no additives or preservatives, continue to gain considerable consumer support. In principle, organic wines should be as excellent as nonorganic. Because most organic wine producers tend to do less manipulation and processing of their wines, the consumer receives a product that is far more natural than those wines which have been manufactured and processed to death.
There is tremendous potential for huge quantities of organic wines, particularly from viticultural areas that enjoy copious quantities of sunshine and wind, the so-called Mediterranean climate. In France, the Languedoc-Roussillon region, Provence, and the Rhône Valley have the potential to produce organic wines if their proprietors desire. Much of California could do so as well. Parts of Australia and Italy also have weather conditions that encourage the possibility of developing organic vineyards.
THE DARK SIDE OF WINE
Although technology allows wine-makers to produce wines of better and better quality, the continuing obsession with technically perfect wines is unfortunately stripping wines of their identifiable and distinctive character. Whether it is excessive filtration of wines or insufficiently critical emulation of winemaking styles, the downside of modern winemaking is that it is now increasingly difficult to tell an Italian Chardonnay from one made in France or California or Australia. When the corporate wine-makers of the world begin to make wines all in the same way, designing them to offend the least number of people, wine will no doubt lose its fascinating appeal and individualism to become no better than most brands of whiskey, gin, Scotch, or vodka. One must not forget that the great appeal of wine is that it is a unique, distinctive, fascinating beverage and different every time one drinks it. Wine-makers and the owners of wineries, particularly in America, must learn to take more risks so as to preserve the individual character of their wines, even though some consumers may find them bizarre or unusual. It is this distinctive quality of wine that will ensure its future.
Since the beginning of my career as a professional wine critic, I have tried to present a strong case against the excessive manipulation of wine. One look at the producers of the world’s greatest wines will irrefutably reveal that the following characteristics are shared by all of them — whether they be from California, France, Italy, Spain, or Germany: 1) They are driven to preserve the integrity of the vineyard’s character, the varietal’s identity, and the vintage’s personality. 2) They believe in low crop yields. 3) Weather permitting, they harvest only physiologically mature (versus analytically ripe) fruit. 4) They use simplistic winemaking and cellar techniques, in the sense that they are minimal interventionists, preferring to permit the wine to make itself. 5) Though they are not opposed to fining or filtration if the wine is unstable or unclear, if the wine is made from healthy, ripe grapes and is stable and clear, they will absolutely refuse to strip it by excessive fining and filtration at bottling.
Producers who care only about making wine as fast as possible and collecting their accounts receivable quickly also have many things in common. They turn out neutral, vapid, mediocre wines, and they are believers in huge crop yields, with considerable fertilization to promote massive crops, as large as the vineyard can render (six or more tons per acre, compared to modest yields of three tons per acre). Their philosophy is that the vineyard is a manufacturing plant and cost efficiency dictates that production be maximized. They rush their wine into bottle as quickly as possible in order to get paid. They believe in processing wine, such as centrifuging it initially, then practicing multiple fining and filtration procedures, particularly a denuding sterile filtration. This guarantees that the wine is lifeless but stable, so the wine’s being able to withstand temperature extremes and stand upright on a grocery store’s shelf has priority over giving the consumer a beverage of pleasure. These wineries harvest earlier than anybody else because they are unwilling to take any risk, delegating all questions to their oenologists, who, they know, have as their objectives security and stability, which is in conflict with the consumer’s goal of finding joy in wine.
The effect of excessive manipulation of wine, particularly overly aggressive fining and filtration, is dramatic. It destroys a wine’s bouquet as well as its ability to express its TERROIR and varietal character. It also mutes the vintage’s character. Fining and filtration can be done lightly, causing only minor damage, but most wines produced in the New World (California, Australia, and South America in particular) and most bulk wines produced in Europe are sterile-filtered. This procedure requires numerous prefiltrations to get the wines clean enough to pass through a micropore membrane filter. This system of wine stability and clarification strips, eviscerates, and denudes a wine of much of its character.
Some wines can suffer such abuse with less damage. Thick, tannic, concentrated Syrah- and Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines may even survive these wine lobotomies, diminished in aromatic and flavor dimension, but still alive. Wines such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are destroyed in the process.
Thanks to a new generation of producers, particularly in France, aided by a number of specialist importers from America, there has been a movement against unnecessary fining and filtration. One only has to look at the extraordinary success enjoyed by such American importers as Kermit Lynch, Weygandt-Metzler, North Berkeley Imports, and Robert Kacher to realize how much consumer demand exists for a natural, unfiltered, uncompromised wine that is a faithful representation of its vineyard and vintage. Most serious wine consumers do not mind not being able to drink the last half ounce of a wine because of sediment. They know this sediment means they are getting a flavorful, authentic, unprocessed wine that is much more representative than one that has been stripped at bottling.
Other small importers who have followed the leads of Lynch, Weygandt-Metzler, North Berkeley, and Kacher include Neal Rosenthal Select Vineyards (New York, New York); Eric Solomon of European Cellars (New York, New York); Don Quattlebaum of New Castle Imports (Myrtle Beach, South Carolina); Fran Kysela of Kysela P?re et Fils (Winchester, Virginia); Martine Saunier of Martine’s Wines (San Rafael, California); Jorgé Ordonnez (Dedham, Massachusetts); Leonardo Lo Cascio (Hohokus, New Jersey); Dan Philips (Oxnard, California); Ted Schrauth (West Australia); John Larchet (Australia); Jeffrey Davies (West Nyack, New York); and Alain Junguenet (Watchung, New Jersey), to name some of the best known. They often insist that their producers not filter those wines shipped to the United States, resulting in a richer, more ageworthy wine being sold in America than elsewhere in the world. Even some of our country’s largest importers, most notably Kobrand, Inc., in New York City, are encouraging producers to move toward more gentle and natural bottling techniques.
I am certain there would have been an even more powerful movement to bottle wines naturally with minimal clarification if the world’s wine press were to examine the effect of excessive fining and filtration. It is difficult to criticize many American wine writers, because the vast majority of them are part-timers. Few have the time or resources to taste the same wines before and after bottling. Yet I am disappointed that many of our most influential writers and publications have remained strangely silent, particularly in view of the profound negative impact filtration can have on the quality of fine wine. The English wine-writing corps, which includes many veteran, full-time wine writers, has an appalling record on this issue, especially in view of the fact that many of them make it a practice to taste before and after bottling. For those who care about the quality of wine, and the preservation of the character of the vineyard, vintage, and varietal, the reluctance of so many writers to criticize the wine industry undermines the entire notion of wine appreciation.
Even a wine writer of the stature of Hugh Johnson comes out strongly on the side of processed, neutral wines that can be safely shipped 12 months of the year. Readers may want to consider Johnson’s, and his coauthor, James Halliday’s, comments in their book The Vintner’s Art — How Great Wines Are Made. Halliday is an Australian wine writer and winery owner, and Hugh Johnson may be this century’s most widely read wine author. In their book they chastise the American importer Kermit Lynch for his “romantic ideals,” which they describe as “increasingly impractical.” Johnson and Halliday assert, “The truth is that a good fifty percent of those artisan Burgundies and Rhônes are bacterial time bombs.” Their plea for compromised and standardized wines is supported by the following observation: “The hard reality is that many restaurants and many consumers simply will not accept sediment.” This may have been partially true in America 20 years ago, but today the consumer not only wants but demands a natural wine. Moreover, the wine consumer understands that sediment in a bottle of fine wine is a healthy sign. The position, which both writers take, that modern-day winemaking and commercial necessity require that wines be shipped 12 months a year and be durable enough to withstand months on retailers’ shelves in both cold and hot temperature conditions is highly debatable. America now has increasing numbers of responsible merchants, importers, and restaurant sommeliers who go to great lengths to guarantee the client a healthy bottle of wine that has not been abused. Astonishingly, Johnson and Halliday conclude that consumers cannot tell the difference between a filtered and an unfiltered wine! In summarizing their position, they state, “but leave the wine for 1, 2, or 3 months (one cannot tell how long the recovery process will take), and it is usually impossible to tell the filtered from the non-filtered wine, provided the filtration at bottling was skillfully carried out.” After 14 years of conducting such tastings, I find this statement not only unbelievable but insupportable! Am I to conclude that all of the wonderful wines I have tasted from cask that were subsequently damaged by vigorous fining and filtration were bottled by incompetent people who did not know how to filter? Am I to think that the results of the extensive comparative tastings (usually blind) that I have done of the same wine, filtered versus unfiltered, were bogus? Are the enormous aromatic, flavor, textural, and qualitative differences that are the result of vigorous clarification techniques figments of my imagination? Astoundingly, the wine industry’s reluctance to accept responsibility for preserving all that the best vineyards and vintages can achieve is excused rather than condemned.
If excessive fining and filtration are not bad enough, consider the overzealous additions of citric and tartaric acids employed by Australian and California oenologists to perk up their wines. You know the feeling — you open a bottle of Australian or California Chardonnay and not only is there no bouquet (because it was sterile-filtered), but tasting the wine is like biting into a fresh lemon or lime. It is not enjoyable. What you are experiencing is the result of the misguided philosophy among New World wine-makers to add too much acidity as a cheap life insurance policy for their wines. This “life insurance” is in fact a death certificate. Because these producers are unwilling to reduce their yields and unwilling to assume any risk, and because they see winemaking as nothing more than a processing technique, they generously add acidity. It does serve as an antibacterial, antioxidant agent, thus helping to keep the wine fresh. But those who acidify the most are usually those who harvest appallingly high crop yields, so there is little flavor to protect! After 6-12 months of bottle age, what little fruit is present fades, and the consumer is left with a skeleton of sharp, shrill acid levels, alcohol, and wood (if utilized), but no fruit — an utterly reprehensible way of making wine.
I do not object to the use of these techniques for bulk and jug wines that the consumer is buying for value, or because of brand-name recognition. But for any producer to sell a wine as a handcrafted, artisanal product at $20 or more a bottle, these practices are shameful. Anyone who tells you that excessive acidification, fining, and filtration do not damage a wine is either a fool or a liar.
The Inflated Wine Pricing of Restaurants
Given the vast sums of discretionary income that Americans spend eating at restaurants, a strong argument could be made that the cornerstone of increased wine consumption and awareness would be wine drinking in restaurants. However, most restaurants treat wine as a luxury item, marking it up an exorbitant 200-500%, thereby effectively discouraging the consumption of wine. This practice of offering wines at huge markups also serves to reinforce the mistaken notion that wine is only for the elite and the super rich.
The wine industry does little about this practice, being content merely to see its wines placed on a restaurant’s list. But the consumer should revolt and avoid those restaurants that charge exorbitant wine prices, no matter how sublime the cuisine. This is nothing more than legitimized mugging of the consumer.
Fortunately, things are slightly better today than they were a decade ago, as some restaurant owners are now regarding wine as an integral part of the meal, and not merely as a device to increase the bill.
Collectors versus Consumers
I have reluctantly come to believe that many of France’s greatest wine treasures — the first growths of Bordeaux, including the famous sweet nectar made at Château d’Yquem, Burgundy’s most profound red wines from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and virtually all of the wines from the tiny white wine appellation of Montrachet — are never drunk or, should I say, swallowed. Most of us who purchase or cellar wine do so on the theory that eventually every one of our splendid bottles will be swirled, sloshed, sniffed, sipped, and, yes, guzzled, with friends. That, of course, is one of the joys of wine, and those of you who partake of this pleasure are true wine lovers. There are, however, other types of wine collectors — the collector-investor, the collector-spitter, and even the nondrinking collector.
Several years ago I remember being deluged with telephone calls from a man wanting me to have dinner with him and tour his private cellar. After several months of resisting, I finally succumbed. A very prominent businessman, he had constructed an impressive cellar beneath his sprawling home. It was enormous and immaculately kept, with state-of-the-art humidity and temperature controls. I suspect it contained in excess of 10,000 bottles. There were cases of such thoroughbreds as Pétrus, Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, and rare vintages of the great red Burgundies such as Romanée-Conti and La Tache, and to my astonishment there were also hundreds of cases of 10- and 15-year-old Beaujolais, Pouilly-Fuissé, Dolcetto, and California Chardonnays — all wines that should have been drunk during their first 4 or 5 years of life. I diplomatically suggested that he should inventory his cellar, as there seemed to be a number of wines that mandated immediate consumption.
About the time I spotted the fifth or sixth case of what was undoubtedly 10-year-old Beaujolais vinegar, I began to doubt the sincerity of my host’s enthusiasm for wine. These unthinkable doubts (I was much more naive then than I am now) were amplified at dinner. As we entered the sprawling kitchen and dining room complex, he proudly announced that neither he nor his wife actually drank wine, and then asked if I would care for a glass of mineral water, iced tea — or, if I preferred, a bottle of wine. During my sorrowful drive home that evening, I lamented the fact that I had not opted for the mineral water. For when I made the mistake of requesting wine with the meal, my host proceeded to grab a bottle of wine that one of his friends suggested should be consumed immediately. It was a brown-colored, utterly repugnant, senile Bordeaux from 1969, perhaps the worst vintage in the last 25 years. Furthermore, the château was a notorious underachiever from the famous commune of Pauillac. The wine he chose does not normally merit buying in a good vintage, much less a pathetic one. I shall never forget my host opening the bottle and saying, “Well, Bob, this wine sure smells good.”
Regrettably, this nondrinking collector continues to buy large quantities of wine, not for investment, and obviously not for drinking. The local wine merchants tell me his type is not rare. To him, a collection of wine is like a collection of crystal, art, sculpture, or china — something to be admired, to be shown off, but never, ever to be consumed.
More ostentatious by far is the collector-spitter, who thrives on gigantic tastings where 50, 60, sometimes even 70 or 80 vintages of great wines, often from the same château, can be “tasted.” Important members of the wine press are invited (at no charge, of course) in the hope that this wine happening will receive a major article in the The New York or Los Angeles Times, and the collector’s name will become recognized and revered in the land of winedom. These collector-spitters relish rubbing elbows with famous proprietors and telling their friends, “Oh, I’ll be at Château Lafite-Rothschild next week to taste all of the château’s wines between 1870 and 1987. Sorry you can’t be there.” I have, I confess, participated in several of these events and have learned from the exercise of trying to understand them that their primary purpose is to feed the sponsor’s enormous ego, and often the château’s ego as well.
I am not against academic tastings where a limited number of serious wine enthusiasts sit down to taste 20 or 30 different wines (usually young ones), because that is a manageable number that both neophytes and connoisseurs can generally grasp. But to taste 60 or more rare and monumental vintages at an eight- or twelve-hour tasting marathon is excessive. To put it simply, what happens at these tastings is that much of the world’s greatest, rarest, and most expensive wines are spit out. No wine taster I have ever met could conceivably remain sober, even if only the greatest wines were swallowed. I can assure you, there is only remorse in spitting out a 1929 or 1945 Mouton-Rothschild.
Recollections of these events have long troubled me. I vividly remember one tasting held at a very famous restaurant in Los Angeles where a number of compelling bottles from one of France’s greatest estates were opened. Many of them were exhilarating. Yet, whether it was the otherworldly 1961 or the opulent 1947, the reactions I saw on the faces of those 40 or so people, each of whom had paid several thousand dollars to attend, made me wonder whether we were tasting 50 different vintages of France’s greatest wines or 50 bottles of Pepto-Bismol. Fortunately, the organizer did appear to enjoy the gathering and appreciate the wines, but among the guests I never once saw a smile or any enthusiasm or happiness in the course of this extraordinary 12-hour tasting.
I remember another marathon tasting held in France by one of Europe’s leading collector-spitters, which lasted all day and much of the night. There were over 90 legendary wines served, and midway through the afternoon I was reasonably certain there was not a sober individual remaining except for the chef and his staff. By the time the magnum of 1929 Mouton-Rothschild was served (one of the century’s greatest wines), I do not think there was a guest left, myself included, who was competent enough to know whether he was drinking claret or Beaujolais.
I have also noticed at these tastings that many collector-spitters did not even know when a bottle was corked (had the smell of moldy cardboard and was defective), or when a bottle was oxidized and undrinkable, proving the old saying that money does not always buy good taste. Of course, most of these tastings are media happenings designed to stroke the host’s vanity. All too frequently they undermine the principle that wine is a beverage of pleasure, and that is my basic regret.
The third type of collector, the investor, is motivated by the possibility of reselling the wines for profit. Eventually, most or all of these wines return to the marketplace, and much of it wends its way into the hands of serious consumers who share it with their spouses or good friends. Of course, they often must pay dearly for the privilege, but wine is not the only product that falls prey to such manipulation. I hate to think of wine being thought of primarily as an investment, but the world’s finest wines do appreciate significantly in value, and it would be foolish to ignore the fact that more and more shrewd investors are looking at wine as a way of making money.
It is a frightening thought, but I have no doubt that a sizeable percentage (10-25%) of the wines sold in America have been damaged because of exposure to extremes of heat. Smart consumers have long been aware of the signs of poor storage. They have only to look at the bottle. As discussed earlier in the How to Buy Wine section, the first sign that a bottle has been poorly stored is when a cork is popped above the rim and is pushed out against the lead or plastic capsule that covers the top of the bottle.
Another sign that the wine has been poorly stored is seepage, or legs, down the rim of the bottle. This is the sometimes sticky, dry residue of a wine that has expanded, seeped around the cork, and dripped onto the rim, almost always due to excessively high temperatures in transit or storage. Few merchants take the trouble to wipe the legs off, and they can often be spotted on wines shipped during the heat of the summer or brought into the United States through the Panama Canal in un-air-conditioned containers. Consumers should avoid buying wines that show dried seepage legs originating under the capsule and trickling down the side of the bottle.
You should also be alert for young wines (those less than four years old) that have more than one-half inch of air space, or ullage, between the cork and the liquid level in the bottle. Modern bottling operations generally fill bottles within one-eighth inch of the cork, and more than one-half inch of air space should arouse your suspicion.
The problem, of course, is that too few people in the wine trade take the necessary steps to ensure that the wine is not ruined in shipment or storage. The wine business has become so commercial that wines, whether from California, Italy, or France, are shipped year-round, regardless of weather conditions. Traditionally, wines from Europe were shipped only in the spring or fall, when temperatures encountered in shipment would be moderate, assuming they were not shipped by way of the Panama Canal. The cost of renting an air-conditioned or heated container for shipping wines adds anywhere from 20 to 40 cents to the wholesale cost of the bottle, but when buying wines that cost over $200 a case, I doubt the purchaser would mind paying the extra premium knowing that the wine will not smell or taste cooked when opened.
Many importers claim to ship in reefers (the trade jargon for temperature-controlled containers), but only a handful actually do. America’s largest importer of high-quality Bordeaux wine rarely, if ever, uses reefers and claims to have had no problems with its shipments.
Perhaps they would change their minds if they had witnessed the cases of 1986 Rausan-Ségla, 1986 Talbot, 1986 Gruaud-Larose, and 1986 Château Margaux that arrived in the Maryland-Washington, D.C., market with stained labels and pushed-out corks. Somewhere between Bordeaux and Washington, D.C., these wines had been exposed to torridly high temperatures. It may not have been the fault of the importer, as the wine passed through a number of intermediaries before reaching its final destination. But pity the poor consumers who buy these wines, put them in their cellars, and open them 10 or 15 years in the future. Who will grieve for them?
The problem with temperature extremes is that the naturally made, minimally processed, hand-produced wines are the most vulnerable to this kind of abuse. Therefore, many importers, not wanting to assume any risks, have gone back to their suppliers and demanded “more stable” wines. Translated into real terms this means the wine trade prefers to ship vapid, denuded wines that have been “stabilized,” subjected to a manufacturing process, and either pasteurized or sterile-filtered so they can be shipped 12 months a year. While their corks may still pop out if subjected to enough heat, their taste will not change, because for all intents and purposes these wines are already dead when they are put in the bottle. Unfortunately, only a small segment of the wine trade seems to care.
While there are some wine merchants, wholesalers, and importers who are cognizant of the damage that can be done when wines are not protected, and who take great pride in representing hand-made, quality products, the majority of the wine trade continues to ignore the risks. They would prefer that the wine be denuded by pasteurization, cold stabilization, or a sterile filtration. Only then can they be shipped safely under any weather conditions.
Wine Producers’ Greed
Are today’s wine consumers being hoodwinked by the world’s wine producers? Most growers and/or producers have intentionally permitted production yields to soar to such extraordinary levels that the concentration and character of their wines are in jeopardy. There remain a handful of fanatics who continue, at some financial sacrifice, to reject a significant proportion of their harvest in order to ensure that only the finest-quality wine is sold under their name. However, they are dwindling in number. Fewer producers are prepared to go into the vineyard and cut bunches of grapes to reduce the yields. Fewer still are willing to cut back prudently on fertilizers. For much of the last decade, production yields throughout the world continued to break records with each new vintage. The results are wines that increasingly lack character, concentration, and staying power. In Europe, the most flagrant abuses of overproduction occur in Germany and Burgundy, where yields today are three to almost five times what they were in the 1950s. The argument that the vineyards are more carefully and competently managed, and that this results in larger crops, is misleading. Off the record, many a seriously committed wine producer will tell you that “the smaller the yield, the better the wine.”
If one wonders why the Domaine Leroy’s Burgundies taste richer than those from other domaines, it is due not only to quality winemaking but to the fact that their yields are one-third those of other Burgundy producers. If one asks why the best Châteauneuf-du-Papes are generally Rayas, Péga, Bonneau, and Beaucastel, it is because their yields are one-half those of other producers of the appellation. The same assertion applies to J. J. Prüm and Müller-Catoir in Germany. Not surprisingly, they have conservative crop yields that produce one-third the amount of wine of their neighbors.
While I do not want to suggest there are no longer any great wines, and that most of the wines now produced are no better than the plonk peasants drank in the 19th century, the point is that overfertilization, modern sprays that prevent rot, the development of highly prolific clonal selections, and the failure to keep production levels modest have all resulted in yields that may well be combining to destroy the reputations of many of the most famous wine regions of the world. Trying to find a flavorful Chardonnay from California today is not much easier than finding a concentrated red Burgundy that can age gracefully beyond 10 years. The production yields of Chardonnay in California have often resulted in wines that have only a faint character of the grape and seem almost entirely dominated by acidity and/or the smell of oak barrels. What is appalling is that there is so little intrinsic flavor. Yet Chardonnays remain the most popular white wine in this country, so what incentive is there to lower yields?
Of course, if the public, encouraged by a noncritical, indifferent wine media, is willing to pay top dollar for mediocrity, then little is likely to change. However, if consumers start insisting that $15 or $20 should at the very minimum fetch a wine that provides far more pleasure, perhaps that message will gradually work its way back to the producers.
Wine Writers’ Ethics and Competence
The problems just described have only occasionally been acknowledged by the wine media, which generally has a collective mind-set of never having met a wine it doesn’t like.
Wine writing in America has rarely been a profitable or promising full-time occupation. Historically, the most interesting work was always done by those people who sold wine. There’s no doubting the influence or importance of the books written by Alexis Lichine and Frank Schoonmaker. But both men made their fortunes by selling rather than writing about wine, and both managed to write about wine objectively, despite their ties to the trade.
There are probably not more than a dozen or so independent wine experts in this country who support themselves entirely by writing. Great Britain has long championed the cause of wine writers and looked upon them as true professionals. But even there, with all their experience and access to the finest European vineyards, most of the successful wine writers have been involved in the sale and distribution of wine. Can anyone name an English wine writer who criticized the performance of Lafite-Rothschild between 1961 and 1974, or Château Margaux between 1964 and 1977? Meanwhile, the consumer was getting screwed.
It is probably unrealistic to expect writers to develop a professional expertise with wine without access and support from the trade, but such support can compromise their findings. If they are beholden to wine producers for the wines they taste, they are not likely to fault them. If their trips to vineyards are the result of the wine-maker’s largesse, they are unlikely to criticize what they have seen. If they are lodged at the châteaux and their trunks are filled with cases of wine (as, sadly, is often the case), can a consumer expect them to be critical, or even objective?
Putting aside the foolish notion that a wine writer is going to bite the hand that feeds him, there is the problem that many wine writers are lacking the global experience essential to evaluate wine properly. What has emerged from such inexperience is a school of wine writing that is primarily trained to look at the wine’s structure and acid levels, and this philosophy is too frequently in evidence when judging wines. The level of pleasure that a wine provides, or is capable of providing in the future, would appear to be irrelevant. The results are wine evaluations that read as though one were measuring the industrial strength of different grades of cardboard rather than a beverage that many consider nature’s greatest gift to mankind. Balance is everything in wine, and wines that taste too tart or tannic rarely ever age into flavorful, distinctive, charming beverages. While winemaking and wine technology are indeed better, and some of the most compelling wines ever made are being produced today, there are far too many mediocre wines sitting on the shelves that hardly deserve their high praise.
There are, however, some interesting trends. The growth of The Wine Spectator, with its staff of full-time writers obligated to follow a strict code of non-conflict of interest, has resulted in better and more professional journalism. It also cannot be discounted that this flashy magazine appears twice a month. This is good news for the wine industry, frequently under siege by the antialcohol extremists. Finally, to The Wine Spectator’s credit, more of their tasting reports are authored by one or two people, not an anonymous, secretive committee. I have already aired my criticism of wine magazines and tastings whose evaluations are the result of a committee’s vote.
Given the vitality of our nation’s best wine guides, it is unlikely that wine writers will have less influence in the future. The thousands and thousands of wines that come on the market, many of them overpriced and vapid, require consumer-oriented reviews from the wine-writing community. But until a greater degree of professionalism is attained, until more experience is evidenced by wine writers, until their misinformed emphasis on a wine’s high acidity and structure is forever discredited, until most of the English wine media begin to understand and adhere to the basic rules of conflict of interest, until we all remember that this is only a beverage of pleasure, to be seriously consumed but not taken too seriously, then and only then will the quality of wine writing and the wines we drink improve. Will all of this happen, or will we be reminded of these words of Marcel Proust: “We do not succeed in changing things according to our desire, but gradually our desire changes. The situation that we hope to change because it was intolerable becomes unimportant. We have not managed to surmount the obstacle as we are absolutely determined to do, but life has taken us round to it, let us pass it, and then if we turn round to gaze at the road past, we can barely catch sight of it, so imperceptible has it become.”
IN VINO VERITAS?
I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of rare and fine wine that is sold today, either at retail or through one of the numerous wine auctions, involves legitimate bottles. Yet over the last six months I have accumulated enough evidence to suggest that some warning flags need to be raised before this insidious disease becomes a vinous ebola. Shrewd buyers, reputable merchants, and auction companies that specialize in top vintages take measures to authenticate bottles of wine that may cost thousands of dollars. The top auction houses, aware of the growing evidence of phony bottles, are going to great lengths to authenticate the legitimacy of each wine they sell. Nevertheless, a con artist can easily reproduce a bottle (the finest Bordeaux châteaux use glass bottles that are among the cheapest and easiest to obtain in the world), a label, a cork, and a capsule, deceiving even the most astute purchaser. Think it over — high-quality, limited-production, rare wine may be the only luxury-priced commodity in the world that does not come with a guarantee of authenticity, save for the label and cork, and the former can be easily duplicated with one of today’s high-tech scanners.
The wine marketplace has witnessed obscene speculation for such modern-day vintages as 1990, certain 1989s, and, of course, 1982. The existence of dishonest segments of society with only one objective, to take full advantage of the enormous opportunity that exists to make a quick buck by selling bogus wines, is not that shocking. It has always been a problem, but based on the number of letters and telephone calls I have received from victims who have been the recipients of suspiciously labeled wines, with even more doubtful contents, it is a subject that needs to be addressed.
It was nearly 20 years ago that I saw my first fraudulent bottles of fine wine. Cases of 1975 Mouton-Rothschild were being sold in New York for below their market value. The wine was packed in shabby cardboard cases with washed-out labels. In addition to those warning signs, the bottles had the words “Made in Canada” on the bottom, and the capsules did not have the characteristic Mouton embossed printing. Blatant recklessness and the slipshod work of the criminal made the fraud easy to detect.
Many producers of these limited-production, rare wines are aware of the frauds perpetuated with their products, but they have largely chosen to maintain a low profile for fear that widespread dissemination of potentially inflammatory information will unsettle (to put it mildly) the fine-wine marketplace. No doubt the news that a hundred or so phony cases of Château ABC are floating around in the world marketplace would suppress the value of the wine. The estates that make the world’s most cherished wines (and we all know who they are) need to develop a better system for guaranteeing the authenticity of their product, but, lamentably, few to date have been so inclined. Four of the elite Bordeaux châteaux do make it more difficult for counterfeiting pirates. Pétrus has, since the 1988 vintage, utilized a special label that when viewed under a specific type of light reveals a code not apparent under normal lighting conditions. In 1996, Pétrus went further, instituting an engraved bottle with the word Pétrus etched in the glass. Château d’Yquem incorporates a watermark in their label. Haut-Brion was among the first to utilize a custom-embossed bottle in 1957. In 1996, Lafite-Rothschild also launched an antifraud engraved bottle. More recently, Château Margaux has inserted a special code in the print of each bottle. Whether creating more sophisticated labels that are not as easy to reproduce (with serial numbers, watermarks, etc.), or employing a fraud squad devoted to tracking down the provenance of these phony bottles — something must be done.
Space does not permit me to discuss all the shocking frauds I have learned of or have been called in to help prove. I myself have seen phony bottles of Domaine Leflaive Montrachet, Château Rayas, Cheval Blanc, Vieux Château Certan, and Le Pin. Reports of phony bottles come in with surprising frequency and have been confirmed in conversations with retailers, both in this country and in England. They have told me of fraudulent cases of 1989 and 1982 Le Pin, 1982 Pétrus, 1982 and 1975 Lafleur, 1947 Cheval Blanc, 1928 Latour, and 1900 Margaux, with nonbranded blank corks and photocopied labels! With respect to the 1928 Latour, the merchant, suspecting he had been duped, opened it and told me he was sure it was a young California Pinot Noir. One major American merchant, outraged at being sold phony wine, attempted to contact the European seller, only to find out he had moved, with no forwarding address, from his office in Paris. The seller has never been found.
A wine buyer from one of this country’s most prominent restaurants recently told me about problems he had encountered when opening expensive bottles for his clients. All of these wines had been purchased from a reputable merchant who had bought the wine from a gray marketeer selling private cellars in Europe. Corks of 1961 Haut-Brion and 1970 Latour were either illegible or intentionally had the vintage scratched off. Since this buyer had vast tasting experience with these wines, detection of the fraud was relatively easy. He was convinced that the 1961 Haut-Brion was fraudulent, as it tasted like a much lighter vintage of Haut-Brion (he suspected it to be the 1967). In the case of the 1970 Latour, the cork had been badly altered to resemble the 1970, but closer inspection revealed it to be the 1978 Latour.
What is so surprising is that most fraudulent efforts to date appear to be the work of kindergarten criminals, indicated by washed-out, photocopied labels, unconvincing corks, and lack of distinguishing château/domaine signs on labels, bottles, corks, or capsules. However, with the technology available today, authentic-looking bottles, capsules, corks, and labels can be easily duplicated, and for these counterfeits, only a person who knows the taste of the wine could tell if the contents were bogus.
1. Dealing with the gray market: To date, almost all the fraudulent bottles have come from wines purchased in the so-called gray market. This means the wines have not gone through the normal distribution channel, where a contractual relationship exists between the producer and the vendor. Bottles of French wines with the green French tax stamps on the top of the capsule have obviously been purchased in France and then resold to gray market operators. I do not want to denigrate the best of the gray market operators, because I am a frequent purchaser from these sources, and those I know are legitimate, serious, and professional about what they buy. Nevertheless, it is irrefutable that most of the suspicious wine showing up is from rogue gray market operators.
2. Label awareness: Wine bottles that have easily removable neck labels to indicate the vintage are especially prone to tampering. It is easy to transfer a neck label from a poor vintage to one with a great reputation. Sadly, almost all Burgundies fall into this category, as well as some Rhône Valley wines. Many of the top Burgundy producers have begun to brand the cork with the appropriate vintage and vineyard, particularly if it is a premier or grand cru. However, this is a relatively recent practice, largely implemented in the late 1980s by top estates and négociants. The only way a buyer can make sure the cork matches the neck and bottle labels is to remove the capsule. Any purchaser who is the least bit uneasy about the provenance of a wine should not hesitate to pull off the capsule. Irregular, asymmetrical labels with tears and smears of glue are a sign that someone may have tampered with the bottle. Perhaps the trend (now widely employed by California wineries such as Robert Mondavi and Kendall-Jackson) to discontinue the use of capsules should be considered by top estates in France, Italy, and Spain. An alternative would be to design a capsule with a window slot, permitting the purchaser to have a view of the cork’s vintage and vineyard name. A more practical as well as inexpensive alternative would be to print the name of the vineyard and vintage on the capsule, in addition to the cork.
Badly faded, washed-out labels (or photocopied labels) should be viewed with sheer horror! However, readers should realize that moldy or deteriorated labels from a damp, cold cellar are not signs of fraudulent wines but, rather, of superb cellaring conditions. I have had great success at auctions buying old vintages that have moldy, tattered labels. Most speculators shy away from such wines because their priority is investing, not consumption.
3. Know the market value: Most purchasers of expensive rare wines are extremely knowledgeable about the market value of these wines. If the wine is being offered at a price significantly lower than fair market value, it would seem incumbent on the purchaser to ask why he or she is the beneficiary of such a great deal. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
4. Origin verification: For both rare old vintages and young wines, demanding a guarantee as to the provenance of the wine being purchased is prudent. As a corollary, it is imperative that readers deal with reputable merchants who will stand behind the products they sell. If a merchant refuses to provide details of the origin of where the wine was purchased, take your business elsewhere, even if it means laying out more money for the same wine.
5. Lot numbers: Because of some tainted Perrier water a few years ago, the European community now requires most potable beverages to carry a lot number (but only those sold to member nations, thus excluding the United States). This is usually a tiny number located somewhere on the label that begins with the letter L, followed by a serial number, which can range from several digits to eight or more. Most producers use the vintage as part of the lot number. In the case of Domaine Leflaive, the vintage year is indicated by the last two digits of the lot number. However, in some instances (i.e., Comtes des Lafon), the first two numbers provide the vintage year. For Lynch-Bages or Pichon-Longueville Baron, the vintage appears in the middle of the number. But be advised, many tiny growers do not use lot numbers on those wines sold to non-ECC countries (the United States, for example). Virtually all the Bordeaux châteaux have used lot numbers since the 1989 vintage.
6. No sediment in older wines: Wines more than 10-15 years old, with no sediment and/or with fill levels that reach the bottom of the cork should always be viewed with suspicion. Several Burgundian négociants sell “reconditioned” bottles of ancient vintages that have fills to the cork and lack sediment. I have always been skeptical of this practice, but those négociants claim they have a special process for siphoning off the sediment. Certainly no Bordeaux château utilizes such an unusual and debatable method. Wines that have been recorked at a Bordeaux château will indicate that, either on the cork or on both the label and the cork. The year in which the wine was recorked will usually be indicated. Among the most illustrious estates of Bordeaux, only Pétrus refuses to recork bottles because so many suspicious bottles have been brought to them for recorking. Both Cheval Blanc and Latour indicate both on the cork and the label the date and year of recorking. In these cases, the authentic bottles will have very good fills as the wine has been topped off, but older vintages still display considerable sediment.
7. Unmarked cardboard cases: Wines that have been packaged in unlabeled cardboard boxes are always suspicious, because every Burgundy domaine uses its own customized cardboard box with the name of the estate as well as the importer’s name printed on the box, and almost all the prominent Bordeaux châteaux use wooden boxes with the name of the château as well as the vintage branded into the wood. However, to complicate matters, readers should realize that wines from private cellars consigned to auction houses usually must be repackaged in unmarked cardboard boxes since they had been stored in bins in a private cellar.
8. Rare, mature vintages in large formats: Great wines from ancient rare vintages such as 1900, 1921, 1926, 1928, 1929, 1945, 1947, 1949, and 1950 (especially the Pomerols) that are offered in large formats, particularly double magnums, jeroboams, imperials, and the extremely rare Marie-Jeanne (a three-bottle size), should be scrutinized with the utmost care. Christian Moueix told me that a European vendor had offered rare vintages of Pétrus in Marie-Jeanne formats. To the best of Moueix’s knowledge, Pétrus never used Marie-Jeanne bottles! Large formats of rare old vintages were used very sparingly at most top châteaux, so if you contemplate purchasing an imperial of 1900 Margaux, be sure to verify the wine’s authenticity.
9. Common sense: The need to develop a relationship with experienced and reputable merchants is obvious, but too often consumers are seduced by the lowest price. If it is an $8 Corbières, that’s fine, but a prized vintage of a first growth Bordeaux is not likely to be sold cheaply.
I hope the industry will address these issues in a more forthright manner and begin to take more action designed to protect its members as well as consumers. Additionally, I urge those renowned estates that benefit from glowing reviews to recognize that it is only in their long-term interest to relentlessly seek a solution to this problem, and combine their efforts and resources to track down those responsible for fabricating fraudulent bottles of expensive wine. Surely the time has come for more sophisticated labels (with serial numbers and watermarks), designer bottles that are less easy to replicate, and capsules with vintages and vineyard names. An open avenue of communication with the wine buyer, where these frauds can be identified and confirmed, and the commercial and consumer marketplace fully apprised of the problem, is essential to preserve the authenticity of the world’s finest wines, as well as the integrity and security of purchasing fine wine.
What Constitutes a Great Wine?
What is a great wine? One of the most controversial subjects of the vinous world, isn’t greatness in wine, much like a profound expression of art or music, something very personal and subjective? Much as I agree that the appreciation and enjoyment of art, music, or wine is indeed personal, high quality in wine, as in art and music, does tend to be subject to widespread agreement. Except for the occasional contrarian, greatness in art, music, or wine, if difficult to define precisely, enjoys a broad consensus.
Many of the most legendary wines of this century — 1945 Mouton-Rothschild, 1945 Haut-Brion, 1947 Cheval Blanc, 1947 Pétrus, 1961 Latour, 1982 Mouton-Rothschild, 1982 Le Pin, 1982 Léoville-Las Cases, 1989 Haut-Brion, 1990 Château Margaux, and 1990 Pétrus, to name some of the most renowned red Bordeaux — are profound and riveting wines, even though an occasional discordant view about them may surface. Tasting is indeed subjective, but like most of the finest things in life, though there is considerable agreement as to what represents high quality, no one should feel forced to feign fondness for a work of Picasso or Beethoven, much less a bottle of 1961 Latour.
One issue about the world’s finest wines that is subject to little controversy relates to how such wines originate. Frankly, there are no secrets to the origin and production of the world’s finest wines. Great wines emanate from well-placed vineyards with microclimates favorable to the specific types of grapes grown. Profound wines, whether from France, Italy, Spain, California, or Australia, are also the product of conservative viticultural practices that emphasize low yields and physiologically rather than analytically ripe fruit. After 19 years spent tasting over 200,000 wines, I have never tasted a superb wine made from underripe fruit. Does anyone enjoy the flavors present when biting into an underripe orange, peach, apricot, or cherry? Low yields and ripe fruit are essential for the production of extraordinary wines, yet it is amazing how many wineries never seem to understand this fundamental principle.
In addition to the commonsense approach of harvesting mature (ripe) fruit, and discouraging, in a viticultural sense, the vine from overproducing, the philosophy employed by a winery in making wine is of paramount importance. Exceptional wines (whether red, white, or sparkling) emerge from a similar philosophy, which includes the following: 1) permit the vineyard’s terroir (soil, microclimate, distinctiveness) to express itself; 2) allow the purity and characteristics of the grape varietal or blend of varietals to be represented faithfully in the wine; 3) follow an uncompromising, noninterventionalistic winemaking philosophy that eschews the food-processing, industrial mind-set of high-tech winemaking — in short, give the wine a chance to make itself naturally without the human element attempting to sculpture or alter the wine’s intrinsic character, so that what is placed in the bottle represents as natural an expression of the vineyard, varietal, and vintage as is possible. In keeping with this overall philosophy, wine-makers who attempt to reduce traumatic clarification procedures such as fining and filtration, while also lowering sulfur levels (which can dry out a wine’s fruit, bleach color from a wine, and exacerbate the tannin’s sharpness) produce wines with far more aromatics and flavors, as well as more enthralling textures. These are wines that offer consumers their most compelling and rewarding drinking experiences.
Assuming there is a relatively broad consensus as to how the world’s finest wines originate, what follows is my working definition of an exceptional wine. In short, what are the characteristics of a great wine?
The Ability to Please Both the Palate and the Intellect
Great wines offer satisfaction on a hedonistic level and also challenge and satiate the intellect. The world offers many delicious wines that appeal to the senses but are not complex. The ability to satisfy the intellect is a more subjective issue. Wines that experts call “complex” are those that offer multiple dimensions in both their aromatic and flavor profiles, and have more going for them than simply ripe fruit and a satisfying, pleasurable, yet one-dimensional quality.
1990 Dom Perignon Champagne
1994 Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon Napa
1999 Guigal Côte Rôtie La Mouline
1995 M?ller-Catoir Mussbacher Eselhart Rieslaner
1999 Turley Cellars Zinfandel Hayne Vineyard
2001 Clarendon Hills Old Vine Grenache Blewitt Vineyard
The Ability to Hold the Taster’s Interest
I have often remarked that the greatest wines I’ve ever tasted could easily be recognized by bouquet alone. These profound wines could never be called monochromatic or simple. They hold the taster’s interest, not only providing the initial tantalizing tease but possessing a magnetic attraction in their aromatic intensity and nuanced layers of flavors.
1999 Chapoutier Hermitage Pavillon
1998 l’Evangile (Pomerol)
1995 Soldera Brunello di Montalcino
1999 Peter Michael Chardonnay Point Rouge
1997 Baumard Savenni?res Cuvée Spéciale
1997 Bryant Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa
The Ability to Offer Intense Aromas and Flavors Without Heaviness
An analogy can be made to eating in the finest restaurants. Extraordinary cooking is characterized by purity, intensity, balance, texture, and compelling aromas and flavors. What separates exceptional cuisine from merely good cooking, and great wines from good wines, is their ability to deliver extraordinary intensity of flavor without heaviness. It has been easy in the New World (especially in Australia and California) to produce wines that are oversized, bold, big, rich, but heavy. Europe’s finest wineries, with many centuries more experience, have mastered the ability to obtain intense flavors without heaviness. However, New World viticultural areas (particularly in California) are quickly catching up, as evidenced by the succession of remarkable wines produced in Napa, Sonoma, and elsewhere in the Golden State during the 1990s. Many of California’s greatest wines of the 1990s have sacrificed none of their power and richness, but no longer possess the rustic tannin and oafish feel on the palate that characterized so many of their predecessors of 10 and 20 years ago.
1995 Coche-Dury Corton Charlemagne
1997 Claude Dugat Griottes-Chambertin
1990 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano
2001 Yves Cuilleron Condrieu Vieilles Vignes
1995 Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet
2000 Paul Cotat Sancerre Les Monts Damnes
The Ability of a Wine to Taste Better with Each Sip
Most of the finest wines I have ever drunk were better with the last sip than the first, revealing more nuances and more complex aromas and flavors as the wine unfolded in the glass. Do readers ever wonder why the most interesting and satisfying glass of wine is often the last one in the bottle?
1996 Marcassin Chardonnay Marcassin Vineyard
1996 Mouton-Rothschild (Pauillac)
1994 Fonseca Vintage Port
1996 Léoville-Las Cases (St.-Julien)
1994 Taylor Vintage Port
1999 Montiano Umbria
1998 l’Eglise-Clinet (Pomerol)
1994 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon Napa
The Ability of a Wine to Improve with Age
This is, for better or worse, an indisputable characteristic of great wines. One of the unhealthy legacies of the European wine writers (who dominated wine writing until the last decade) is the belief that in order for a wine to be exceptional when mature, it had to be nasty when young. My experience has revealed just the opposite — wines that are acidic, astringent, and generally fruitless and charmless when young become even nastier and less drinkable when old. That being said, it is true that new vintages of top wines are often unformed and in need of 10-12 years of cellaring (in the case of top California Cabernets, Bordeaux, and Rhône wines), but those wines should always possess a certain accessibility so that even inexperienced wine tasters can tell the wine is — at the minimum — made from very ripe fruit. If a wine does not exhibit ripeness and richness of fruit when young, it will not develop nuances with aging. Great wines unquestionably improve with age. I define “improvement” as the ability of a wine to become significantly more enjoyable and interesting in the bottle, offering more pleasure old than when it was young. Many wineries (especially in the New World) produce wines they claim “will age,” but this is nothing more than a public relations ploy. What they should really say is that they “will survive.” They can endure 10-20 years of bottle age, but they were more enjoyable in their exuberant youthfulness.
1982 Latour (Pauillac)
1971 G. Conterno Barolo Monfortino
1989 Haut-Brion (Graves)
1998 Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape
1985 Sassicaia (Tuscany)
1990 Climens (Barsac/Sauternes)
1994 Laville-Haut-Brion (Graves)
The Ability of a Wine to Offer a Singular Personality
Their singular personalities set the greatest wines produced apart from all others. It is the same with the greatest vintages. The abused usage of a description such as “classic vintage” has become nothing more than a reference to what a viticultural region does in a typical (normal) year. Exceptional wines from exceptional vintages stand far above the norm, and they can always be defined by their singular qualities — both aromatically and in their flavors and textures. The opulent, sumptuous qualities of the 1982 and 1990 red Bordeaux; the rugged tannin and immense ageability of the 1986 red Bordeaux; the seamless, perfectly balanced 1994 Napa and Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignons and proprietary blends; and the plush, sweet fruit, high alcohol, and glycerin of the 1990 Barolos and Barbarescos are all examples of vintage individuality.
1990 Tertre-Rôteboeuf (St.-Emilion)
1990 Sandrone Barolo Boschis
1989 Clinet (Pomerol)
1991 Dominus Proprietary Red Wine Napa
1994 Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon Napa
1992 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve Napa
1982 Mouton-Rothschild (Pauillac)
1986 Château Margaux (Margaux)
1996 Lafite-Rothschild (Pauillac)
MAKING SENSE OF TERROIR
“Knowing in part may make a fine tale, but wisdom comes from seeing the whole.” — An Asian proverb
And so it is with the concept of “terroir,” that hazy, intellectually appealing notion that a plot of soil plays the determining factor in a wine’s character. The French are the world’s most obsessed people regarding the issue of terroir. And why not? Many of that country’s most renowned vineyards are part of an elaborate hierarchy of quality based on their soil and exposition. And the French would have everyone believe that no one on planet Earth can equal the quality of their Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Syrah, etc., because their privileged terroir is unequaled. One of France’s most celebrated wine regions, Burgundy, is often cited as the best place to search for the fullest expression of terroir. Proponents of terroir (the terroirists) argue that a particular piece of ground and its contribution to what is grown there give its product a character distinctive and apart from that same product grown on different soils and slopes. Burgundy, with its classifications of grand cru and premier cru vineyards, village vineyards, and generic viticultural areas, is the terroirists’ “raison d’être.”
Lamentably, terroir has become such a politically correct buzzword that in some circles it is an egregious error not to utter some profound comments about finding “a sense of somewhereness” when tasting a Vosne-Romanée Les Malconsorts or a Latricières-Chambertin. Leading terroirists such as wine producer Lalou Bize-Leroy, Burgundy wine broker Becky Wasserman, and author Matt Kramer make a persuasive and often eloquent case about the necessity of finding, as Kramer puts it, “the true voice of the land” in order for a wine to be legitimized.
Yet like so many things about wine, especially tasting it, there is no scientific basis for anything Bize, Wasserman, or Kramer propose. What they argue is what most Burgundians and owners of France’s finest vineyards give lip service to — that for a wine to be authentic and noble it must speak of its terroir.
On the other side of this issue are the “realists,” or should I call them modernists. They suggest that terroir is merely one of many factors that influence the style of a wine. The realists argue that a multitude of factors determine a wine’s style, quality, and character. Soil, exposition, and microclimate (terroir) most certainly impart an influence, but so do the following:
1. Rootstock — Is it designed to produce prolific or small crop levels?
2. Yeasts — Does the wine-maker use the vineyard’s wild yeasts or are commercial yeasts employed? Every yeast, wild or commercial, will give a wine a different set of aromatics, flavor, and texture.
3. Yields and vine age — High yields from perennial overcroppers result in diluted wine. Low yields, usually less than two tons per acre or 35-40 hectoliters per hectare, result in wines with much more concentration and personality. Additionally, young vines have a tendency to overproduce, whereas old vines produce small berries and less wine. Crop thinning is often employed with younger vineyards to increase the level of concentration.
4. Harvest philosophy — Is the fruit picked underripe to preserve more acidity, or fully ripe to emphasize the lushness and opulence of a given varietal?
5. Vinification techniques and equipment — There are an amazing number of techniques that can change the wine’s aromas and flavors. Moreover, equipment choice (different presses, destemmers, etc.) can have a profound influence on the final wine.
6. élevage (or the wine’s upbringing) — Is the wine brought up in oak barrels, concrete vats, stainless steel, or large oak vats (which the French call foudres)? What is the percentage of new oak? What is the type of oak (French, Russian, American, etc.)? All of these elements exert a strong influence on the wine’s character. Additionally, transferring wine (racking) from one container to another has an immense impact on a wine’s bouquet and flavor. Is the wine allowed to remain in long contact with its lees (believed to give the wine more aromatic complexity and fullness)? Or is it racked frequently for fear of picking up an undesirable lees smell?
7. Fining and filtration — Even the most concentrated and profound wines that terroirists consider quintessential examples of the soil can be eviscerated and stripped of their personality and richness by excessive fining and filtering. Does the wine-maker treat the wine with kid gloves, or is the wine-maker a manufacturer/processor bent on sculpturing the wine?
8. Bottling date — Does the wine-maker bottle early to preserve as much fruit as possible, or does he bottle later to give the wine a more mellow, aged character? Undoubtedly, the philosophy of when to bottle can radically alter the character of a wine.
9. Cellar temperature and sanitary conditions — Some wine cellars are cold and others are warm. Different wines emerge from cold cellars (development is slower and the wines are less prone to oxidation) than from warm cellars (the maturation of aromas and flavors is more rapid and the wines are quicker to oxidize). Additionally, are the wine cellars clean or dirty?
These are just a handful of factors that can have extraordinary impact on the style, quality, and personality of a wine. As the modernists claim, the choices that man himself makes, even when they are unquestionably in pursuit of the highest quality, can contribute far more to a wine’s character than the vineyard’s terroir.
If one listens to Robert Kacher, a realist, or to Matt Kramer, a terroirist, it is easy to conclude that they inhabit different worlds. But the irony is that in most cases, they tend to agree as to the producers making the finest wines.
If you are wondering where I stand on terroir, I do believe it is an important component in the production of fine wine. If one is going to argue terroir, the wine has to be made from exceptionally low yields, fermented with only the wild yeasts that inhabit the vineyard, brought up in a neutral medium such as old barrels, cement tanks, or stainless steel, given minimal cellar treatment, and bottled with little or no fining or filtration. However, I would argue that the most persuasive examples of terroir arise not from Burgundy but, rather, from Alsace or Austria.
If I were to take up the cause of the terroirists, I would use one of Alsace’s greatest domaines, that of Leonard and Olivier Humbrecht, to make a modest case for terroir. The Humbrechts do everything to emphasize the differences in their vineyard holdings. Yet, why is it so easy to identify the wines of Zind-Humbrecht in a blind tasting? Certainly their Hengst-Riesling tastes different from their Riesling from Clos St.-Urbain. The question is, is one tasting the terroir or the wine-maker’s signature? Zind-Humbrecht’s wines, when matched against other Alsatian wines, are more powerful, rich, and intense. Zind-Humbrecht’s yields are lower and they do not filter the wine at bottling. These wines possess not only an identifiable wine-maker’s signature but also a distinctive vineyard character.
Terroir, as used by many of its proponents, is often a convenient excuse for upholding the status quo. If one accepts that terroir is everything, and is essential to legitimize a wine, how should consumers evaluate the wines from Burgundy’s most famous grand cru vineyard, Chambertin? This 32-acre vineyard boasts 23 different proprietors. But only a handful of them appear committed to producing an extraordinary wine. Everyone agrees this is a hallowed piece of ground, but I can think of only a few — Domaine Leroy, Domaine Ponsot, Domaine Rousseau, and Trapet — producing wines that merit the stratospheric reputation of this vineyard. Yet the Chambertins of these producers are completely different in style. The Trapet wine is the most elegant, supple, and round, Leroy’s is the most tannic, backward, concentrated, and meaty, and Rousseau’s is the darkest-colored, most dominated by new oak, and most modern in style, taste, and texture. Among the other 18 or 20 producers (and I am not even thinking about the various négociant offerings), what Burgundy wine enthusiasts are likely to encounter on retailers’ shelves ranges from mediocre to appallingly thin and insipid. What wine, may I ask, speaks for the soil of Chambertin? Is it the wine of Leroy, the wine of Trapet, or the wine of Rousseau? Arguments such as this can be made with virtually any significant Bordeaux or Burgundy vineyard. Which has that notion of “somewhereness” that is raised by the terroirists to validate the quality of a vineyard?
Are terroirists kindergarten intellectuals who should be doing more tasting and less talking? Of course not. But they can be accused of naively swallowing the tallest tale in Burgundy. On the other hand, the realists should recognize that no matter how intense and concentrated a wine can be from a modest vineyard in Givry, it will never have the sheer complexity and class of a Vosne-Romanée grand cru from a conscientious producer.
In conclusion, think of terroir as you do salt, pepper, and garlic. In many dishes they can represent an invaluable component, imparting wonderful aromas and flavors, yet alone, they do not make the dish. Moreover, all the hyperventilation over terroir obscures the most important issue of all — identifying and discovering those producers who make wines worth drinking and savoring!