Structure, or lack thereof: California’s bogeyman
My old friend David was complaining about wine yesterday. He doesn’t know much about it, despite my mentoring him for all these years, but he does know he’s looking for, and missing, “tannins.”
What does David mean when he talks about “tannins”?
He said he wants to feel something solid in his mouth when he sips a wine. Something grippy, structural. I told him that, if he didn’t mind spending $60 or $80 a bottle, there were some Barolos and Barbarescos I could recommend which would fulfill his tannin quotient. He replied that he buys Super-Tuscans, but even they seem too soft for him.
This set me to thinking. I probably use the word “soft” in my wine reviews more than any other adjective, except, possibly, for “dry.” (Maybe “fruity,” also.) Sometimes when I call a wine soft, it’s a compliment. But most of the time, it’s not. For example, I called an Esser 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon soft, but then I explained it “lacks structure, which makes it taste too sweet.” Sometimes, a wine without firm tannins and at least some decent acidity will taste sweet even it it’s technically dry.
This is the problem with so many California red wines. They’re too soft. That makes many of them taste alike, even when they’re made from varieties as different as Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, Syrah, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. We inherited from Old Europe the concept that different grape varieties should and do taste differently from each other. They’re grown in distinctive places to which they’re adapted their dna to thrive, and they express distinct qualities. I don’t suppose it has been easy, all these centuries, to mistake a Beaune Pinot Noir with a Saint-Estephe Cabernet Sauvignon (despite Harry Waugh’s wry “not since lunch” reply when asked if he’d ever confused Burgundy and Bordeaux).
But here in California it is very easy to confuse virtually any red variety for any other, with the possible exception of Pinot Noir. You’d think Sangiovese, that other “transparent” red wine, would show its telltale signature, but it doesn’t. Not when it’s made everywhere from Howell Mountain to Temecula, and the prevailing style is as I described an Andretti 2007: “Firm, chewy tannins and jammy black cherry flavors mark this dry red wine. It has nuances of currants and anise.” That could be almost anything, couldn’t it, even Pinot Noir.
Yet I must taste and review all the California wines that come my way and try to provide some help to readers. If so many things taste so similar, how do I distinguish between an 85 and a 92? My initial response would be “structure,” but that brings me back to David’s complaint about tannins. There are very few California wines that possess great structure. Even when I praise a wine’s structure, it must be seen as being relative: compared to most other wines, such and such a wine has a good structure. An example: of a J. Lohr 2006 Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon, I wrote: “rich in tannic structure, with deep, complex flavors…” etc. Did I mean, then, to suggest it had the same tannin-acid structure that my colleague, Monica Larner, praised in Luciano Sandrone’s 2005 Cannubi Boschis, a Nebbiolo from Barolo? Of course not. But for a California Cabernet, and particularly one from Paso Robles, it showed good structure. This is what I mean when I stress that wine reviewing has to be done in context. Not “Is this a wine that can stand next to anything in the world” but “Is this a good example of its variety, region and winery?”
California grapegrowers and winemakers are aware of this problem of lack of structure, but some of them don’t seem to give a damn. They keep churning out soft wines that taste like melted dessert pastries, and I keep giving them low scores and wondering who in heaven’s name is buying this stuff. But check out this article from the current issue of Western Farm Press, which caters to the grower community. Researchers at Fresno State are tinkering with ways “to extract more anthocyanins, total phenols, tannins and color to improve wine quality,” which is to say, they’re developing “smaller berries [that] produce a higher skin-to-pulp ratio,” which in turn increases tannins, leading to better structure (as well as deeper flavors). Which giant wine company is Fresno State working with? Bronco. Good for Fred Franzia. He could probably sell anything he makes no matter what it is, so he deserves credit for trying to boost quality.