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Groundhog day: Haven’t I had this wine before?

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Great post yesterday in John Mariani’s column on Bloomberg.com. (Full disclosure: John gave my last book, New Classic Winemakers of California, a very nice review.)

Reading his Bloomberg column, I almost felt I could have written it myself. John’s point — that red wines the world over are all starting to taste alike due to copycat viticulture and enology — isn’t a new one. It’s a criticism made by critics everywhere, including myself. But John’s writing is so pinpoint accurate that his column ought to be preserved like the Magna Carta.

He had tasted a Mendoza Bordeaux blend (from a winery that hired — surprise! — Michel Rolland as a consultant) that, he wrote, could just as easily have come from Mendocino or Sicily as from Argentina. Mariani quoted the winemaker’s description from the label: “Full bodied and complex, it exhibits aromas of ripe red fruits and spices with flavors of red fruit, spice, and anise and notes of vanilla and chocolate that complement the rounded tannins.”

Wow. Just yesterday, I had a friend over for dinner, and was telling her how increasingly hard for me it is to come up with varied verbiage for red wine reviews in Wine Enthusiast. How many ways can you say “ripe red fruits, spices, anise and chocolate”? Sometimes I’ll say licorice instead of anise or, if I really want to get into the tall grass, it’s black licorice or red licorice. Sometimes I’ll substitute cocoa for chocolate, or carob, or dark chocolate, or milk chocolate (there are actually subtle differences between these). Sometimes, instead of “spices,” I’ll elaborate: clove, pepper, nutmeg. Since there’s no synonym for “vanilla,” that word turns up a lot, not just in reds but in whites also, especially Chardonnay.

So if everything tastes the same these days, how does one wine get a 95 while another gets an 86? Good question. It’s about balance — the wine’s elusive, hard-to-describe qualities of fusion, integrity, mouthfeel and elegance. Or the lack thereof. It’s actually easier for me to downgrade wines due to faults than it is to upgrade them for quality. That’s why, when I blind taste a lineup of a dozen reds, I eliminate the lower-scoring ones first, leaving the best for last. That way, if wine #11 scores 91 points, and wine #12 still remains, it must score higher than 91. The question then simply becomes, how much higher?

Anyhow, the point is that John Mariani is entirely correct when he says, “There is a lot wrong with a world of wine where attempts are made to have every varietal taste more or less the same and where hugeness and over-ripeness are seen as a virtue as much as they are a marketing strategy.” The problem is, where does the world of wine go from here? I’m tempted to say that a new, younger generation of wine critics (read: bloggers) will upset the apple cart, and come down in favor of drier, more streamlined and elegant wines that more truly reflect their terroir. But you know what? I don’t think that’s going to happen. For all their revolutionary zeal, the bloggers will rave over the same wines Parker does, when and if they get the chance to taste them. M. Rolland’s job is safe.

  1. I think it will depend on the individual blogger as to whether they will fall into the new world, big, oaky trap that bewitches some print reviewers. One point I will make is that when I have been part of professional judging, it is obvious that tasting hundreds of wines in short succession causes palate fatigue and as a result the big wines show ‘better’.
    I think if bloggers do not end up with closets of samples and therefore pressure to taste and review large numbers of wines in a short amount of time, then there is a chance that subtler wine characteristics (such as higher acidity, earthiness, savoury) will prevail.

  2. Morton Leslie says:

    Steve, you may be right that “it won’t happen.” Everything is an acquired taste. I mean Scandinavians have learned to love Surströmming and lutefisk and Americans love Budweiser. So maybe with only overripe wines to taste the young palates will just conform.

    But there always seems to be an equal and opposite force. When all beer tasted like Budweiser a few brave micro breweries gave us an alternative. And the whole world of American beer has changed. I have every confidence that this will happen in wine…just maybe not soon.

  3. I disagree, Steve. Wine in the US is getting more specific. We are on the tail end of sameness (which is why Obama won). The wine envelope is expanding.
    Steve has a bigger problem than Roger Voss because European wines are dramatically different by region, by country (whether good or bad).
    Yes, there was a crowd in France that went “California” but they are coming back to true taste. And California is getting less oaky. Everyone has a taste that is “acquired.”
    There’s a big difference between Oreo and Hydrox. And Hydrox (my favorite) is coming back.

  4. Steve, I’m not sure that’s true (that every blogger will always rave over the blockbuster reds). I’m more of a cool-climate gal myself who favors acidity and subtlety and balance over big and overripe. Of course, parse those words and what does it mean? Essentially, to me, it means there are gems to be found beyond taste-alike Cabs, even within the Cab field of play. There’s always a fringe, and at times the fringe will swell and become the majority. This may happen down the road for wines as well, especially as more people become more tuned in with wine as it relates to food. You can’t drink a blockbuster red every night with your giant steak, or your arteries will make sure you can’t make that pairing ever again.

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