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What’s the best way to judge a wine?

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My bosses at Wine Enthusiast asked me to do a seminar at tonight’s Toast of the Town San Francisco, and I thought it would be fun to pick 6 of my top-rated wines over the last few months that show off their terroir or origin, and then explore the whys and wherefores of how they do so.

For the record, my selected wines are Geyser Peak 2007 Block Collection Russian River Ranches Sauvignon Blanc (Russian River Valley), Heintz 2007 Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast), Hall 2005 Bergfeld Cabernet Sauvignon (St. Helena), Beaulieu 2005 Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cab (Napa Valley), Morgan 2006 Double L Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands) and Gary Farrell 2006 Bradford Mountain Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley).

Like a good lawyer, I can argue for or against the notion of terroir. (My Gemini nature also contributes to that perennially bifurcated point of view.) Against appellation is the reality that you can have wines of the same variety, grown within a stone’s throw of each other, that are vastly different. But arguing in favor of terroir is the fact that there are wines, such as the six above, that are perfectly in alignment with the theoretical qualities of any given appellation. Each defines, in a stereotypical way, its origin’s personality.

When I rate wine, it’s generally on the basis of how good/bad/indifferent it is regardless of terroir. This is especially true when the tasting is done blind. A case can be made, however, that it’s pointless (no pun intended) to rate a wine unless it’s from the point of view of how well, or not, it expresses its terroir, so I was fascinated to read about this tasting that took place in New York State. It was of Finger Lakes wines, and they were “judged based on how well they express[ed] the environment in which they [were] grown,” not merely on how good they tasted.

The tasting was conducted — not surprisingly — by the folks over at Appellation America. Last month, I posted about AA’s efforts to appellation-ize the U.S. in a piece I called “The Appellation Myth” in which my mixed feelings expressed themselves with classic duality. On the one hand I worried about “an appellation-literary complex…that seeks to make money” from writing about appellations. On the other hand, I acknowledged that appellations “are important, but not overly so.”

Regarding that AA competition in New York, it’s actually not a new-fangled way of judging, it’s an old one. The French historically interpreted their grands vins by how they expressed the attributes of their origins, and not merely by how they tasted (which is why, in the late 18th century, there was such a furor over “improving” the wines of the Médoc with darker wines from the south).

Tasting by terroir rather than strict hedonistic or organoleptic impressions provides endless opportunities for discovery, insight, conversation, debate and passion, which are all things that serious winos enjoy. Is tasting by terroir antithetical to the 100-point system? I don’t think so. They can be meshed together. When a wine is very, very good, as the six above are, and truly do seem to be expressions of where they were grown, it’s right to praise their typicity. But it’s important to remember that a wine may be very good even if it is not a precise expression of where it was grown. I have in mind certain sparkling wines from Schramsberg that are assembled from 3 or even 4 counties, or a Napa Cabernet that’s blended from vineyards up and down the Valley. So if I had to choose between wines that were defined by their terroir and those that were simply, purely hedonistic, it would be the latter. (Fortunately, no such choice is demanded!)

  1. As with all human activities, you have a spectrum of involvement from the occasional participant/novice to the enthusiast/professional/aficiando/connoisseur. As you move from left to right along the bell curve the more knowledgeable can tease out nuances that the less experienced will miss. Focusing on origin beyond just which grapes do better in which environments is an interest of the expert. To repeat a POV from an earlier related thread, much more interesting is discovering those wines that combine qualities, including price, that appeal to many people with presumably varying palates (supertasters, etc.). People’s Choice selections are far more signficant, IMO, than the opinions of experts or small panel of experts, especially when they are trying to use terroir as their yardstick.

  2. Great blog entry Steve – I think you hit it right on the head here! :)

  3. Hugh Gardner says:

    As a wine novice I find myself confused about this discussion. Isn’t the character of a terroir originally defined by the wine the comes from it? If that is so, then suppose 99 percent of the wines from a particular place all share common characteristics and that the terroir is then defined accordingly. But let’s also suppose that those wines are awful. Then let’s suppose that the remaining 1 percent of wines sourced from the terroir are not alike, are not like the 99 percent, and yet are great. If judged by how well this 1 percent expresses the otherwise awful terroir, wouldn’t one have to judge these good wines as failures? If a wine isn’t pleasing, who cares how well it matches up with its neighbors?

  4. Hugh, thanks. Your scenario (99% awful, 1% great) is highly unlikely anywhere on earth so far as I can tell. But your question does raise interesting and valid points that wine lovers will be debating forever.

  5. Steve, how do you got about knowing whether or not they express the terroir of that particular region? Have you been to all the areas these wines have grown? In any case, I admire a winemaker’s passion to capture this essence of a particular appellation, or on a more micro-scale their own vineyard within that region. Maybe I fawn too much, myself being new to the world of wine, but I find it endlessly interesting and worthwhile as a pursuit to be able to taste a wine and say it tastes like its origin. Let’s just hope no one grows any wine next to the Jersey Turnpike.

  6. Dylan, good question. Many Pinot Noirs can show, for example, a Green Valley character without being quite the same. Somehow they manage to be the same and different at the same time. As you have pointed out, the ultimate terroir is a single vineyard wine, especially one that’s been made for a number of years, so you can see how the vineyard expresses itself over time. I had a Morgan 2006 Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir yesterday from Santa Lucia Highlands and it was big, dark, bold wine. In other words, classic Double L. Yet other Santa Lucia Highlands Pinots, e.g. Arcadian, can be much lighter and more delicate. Both SLH — both different.

  7. Hugh

    “Pleasing” is only one parameter in wine quality.

    Not everyone likes vin jaune, retsina or even fino sherry – ie, those wines are not *pleasing* to everyone – so they have to be judged in the context of other parameters, not just popular appeal.

  8. Arthur, great point. Which is why I leave the retsina reviews to others!

  9. Thanks for the feedback, Steve. Your answer makes a lot of sense.

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