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Ever confuse wine varieties? “Not since lunch”

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I’m sure it used to be true, in France, that there were major differences between the tastes of Bordeaux (mainly Cabernet Sauvignon), Burgundy (Pinot Noir) and Hermitage (Syrah). The old wine books, our only and most trusted sources of knowledge of the wines of 100 years ago, tell us so. That heritage–that each region specialized in a different variety or varietal family, and thus the wines they produced were loyaux et constants to their type (in the old jargon, as Allen Meadows reminds us in The Pearl of the Côte)–was handed down to the New World, and particularly to California, where most winemakers from the mid-20th century were devoted to the ideal of being as Europeanized as they could be.

Perhaps it might have been true, once, that California Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Syrah could have been as different from each other as were Bordeaux, Burgundy and Hermitage. If that had been the case, it would have occurred in an alternate universe. For historical reasons, only Cabernet Sauvignon has had enough time on the ground (roughly 150 years) to develop a true style, and that almost exclusively in Napa Valley (as it did in Bordeaux). Pinot Noir is getting there fast, in our accelerated society where everything happens at warp speed (except peace in the Middle East), while poor Syrah still scratches its head, wondering where it belongs, both stylistically and geographically (which may amount to the same thing). But then, in France, too, Syrah has an identity crisis.

I am thinking along these rather incoherent lines because I tasted a lot of wine, blind, on Friday at the Napa Valley Vintners. Although the whites and reds were in separate flights, they were all mixed up together, so that I did not know what variety I was tasting with any given wine. It was pretty easy to tell the Sauvignon Blancs from the Chardonnays, but the Viogniers were more difficult to identify; in some cases, they could have been either. Far more difficult, however, were the reds.

To begin with, they were all good. But the Cabernets, Pinots, Merlots and Syrahs were intermingled, and although I tried to ID what variety each was, I wouldn’t say I scored any better than a “B+” (all right, on the 100-point scale, I’d give myself an 87). Yes, it can be a little embarrassing, especially for a critic (even though I was alone and my blunders were unwitnessed), to unbag the bottle and see that the Merlot I’d liked so much was actually a Pinot Noir; or the Cabernet I found so rich and delicious was actually a Pinot Noir.

But then, this is 2012, not 1922. “We live in a wine world where, for the first time, there are wines that do taste like blackberry jam and are instantly intoxicating…I mean all the wines of the ‘Southern’ regions, the New Zealand Pinot Noirs and California Zinfandels and Australian Shirazes,” writes The New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik, in his 2011 book, The Table Comes First. He might have added Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir to his “California Zinfandels” that “all taste like blackberry jam” (although I think California Zinfandel is a lot more identifiable as Zinfandel than Cabernet or Merlot are as themselves). If you read into Gopnik’s remark a bit of a back-handed compliment, I don’t think he meant it that way. He was just making a point about the International Style. Still, there is a school of thought that criticizes New World wines for this very sameness that Gopnik describes.

I have never been part of that school, but having an experience like mine at the Napa Vintners does make you think. The fact is, California red wines are becoming more and more alike, across varieties. This is particularly true at the high price end (which is what I was tasting at Napa Vintners), because the alcohol levels tend to be higher (even with the Pinots), because the wines tend to be more extracted (by virtue of all the magic tricks vintners can apply) and because the quantity and quality of new, mainly French oak tends to be greater. Alcohol, extract and new oak: these mask inherent varietal character and push the wines toward one central point of richness and body.

My mentor, Harry Waugh, has perhaps the most famous quote in all of winedown. When asked, in his old age, over a long and illustrious career (among other things, he was on the board of Chateau Latour), if he had ever mistaken Bordeaux for Burgundy, he replied, “Not since lunch.” (Harry’s generation were heavy drinkers, starting early in the day and going all night. Don’t forget Winston’s Churchill’s penchant for brandy upon awakening.) This perhaps suggests that Burgundy and Bordeaux were not all that different even 80 years ago, as the writers said they were; but then, wine writers are trained, with the determination of Pavlov’s dogs, to point out differences between wine regions. At any rate, I always figured if old Harry could own up to confusing Burgundy with Bordeaux, so could I between Pinot Noir and Cabernet.

Nor does it bother me particularly that these red wines are conspiring toward a central point, as long as that point is so complex and delicious. We will, however, see if things are changing. If there is a trend toward lower alcohol wines (a product both of Mother Nature and conscious winemaking choices), then I might go to a Napa Vintners tasting in, say, the year 2018 and actually have my score for properly identifying varieties rise to 95 points. On the other hand, if global warming hits France as hard as it seems likely to, the differences between Bordeaux, Pinot Noir and Hermitage–whatever they used to be–will be further narrowed.

  1. Steve, the monolithic, (Michael Angelo’s David as it were) has manifest a crack of humility allowing me, this ‘short’ person to identify with you; good job of being human! Just think, I almost let my inferiority complex keep me away from reading your blog every day; that would be my loss, even when you’re off topic and your knowledge of peace in the Middle East ostensibly looks past Golda Meir’s profound comment:” Peace will come when the Arabs (Persians too) will love their children more than they hate us.” Now, if I imagined that crack in your stone edifice, I apologize (You, esquire, did introduce the subject).
    Tell me Steve, you seem like an upfront kind of guy: is there really a purpose for comments from an everyday/man on the street, not a sommelier or vintner on this blog?

  2. Interestingly enough, author Harry Karris, author of the remarkable work “The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book”, points out that up until 40 years ago the majority of Grenache grown in CdP was actually sold to wineries in Burgundy. So the question that further complicates the discussion, is whether back in the days when you supposedly could tell the varieties appart,were they really different? And now that you supposedly can’t, maybe they are truly different?

    Makes it something of a never-ending loop of confusion.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  3. Adam, Allen Meadows deals extensively with the question of fraud in his new book. I think the grand crus 40 years ago were honest. It was the villages and regional wines that may have still been mixing in wines from the south including Algeria.

  4. @Dennis: of course!

  5. Is that why Grenache has been called the Pinot Noir of the Rhone, Adam? And I thought Hermitaging referred to the addition of Syrah to Bdx or Burg reds.

    All that aside, if a varietally labeled wine (and one that is 100% the variety on the label) should be discernible as the variety on the label. If it does not, how could anyone in their right mind call it a good or bad example of that particular variety?

    And if degree of varietal correctness/fidelity is the only reasonable metric of quality we have (what you enjoy and prefer is not necessarily what I enjoy and prefer) then how can a varietal wine lacking any varietal characteristics be considered a quality premium wine?

  6. Steve,

    That makes a great deal of sense….but I think the majority of Grand Cru wines were purchased by a tiny minority of people…so if you are talking about identification of grape varieties, a somewhat broader spectrum of wines is worth considering?

    Or maybe that is the subject of another post — can you tell the grape varities apart as easily at the upper end as you can at the lower end? And is whatever conclusion you draw there equally true for Europe as it is for America?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  7. “Alcohol, extract and new oak: these mask inherent varietal character and push the wines toward one central point of richness and body”.
    You are perfectly right, Steve. But you forgot another factor which is at least as important as “alcohol, extract and new oak” together: extended grape “hang time”.
    Although delicious, desiccated grapes (i.e., raisins) are unlikely to express “variety typicity” and/or complexity.

  8. Before we go all “mea culpa” and “there is no difference because all grapes in CA are overripe, overoaked and generic”, let’s get back to a couple of principles here.

    The first is that Steve admits that he sometimes was fooled but not very often.

    The second is that geography is an inherent determinant of grape character. One can find so-called “Rutherford Dust” in all kinds of wines grown in the Napa Valley, especially those grown on the valley floor. Wine grown in the hills come with their own special character, and it is regularly possible to distinguish Howell Mountain from Mt. Veeder from Diamond Mountain.

    All of which leads to this ancillary and overriding point. All of these wines were from the same dirt. The wines of France are not only from separate varieties but they are also from very separate and distinct locations.

    Arthur’s and Mr. O’Connor’s comments notwithstanding, there is something to this terroir business. One can expect a certain amount of varietal typicity, and one can expect a certain amount of terroir typicity, and the combination of those is not three or four gradations but hundreds and overlapping gradations at times.

    Gentlemen, this is not France.

  9. In our Boston group’s March blind tasting of 18 different 2009 Pinot Noir, only 1 of the 17 tasters could identify the 2009 A Tribute to Grace GRENACHE correctly from the field of Pinot. Amazing.

  10. This second comment is offered because it needs to be separated from those above.

    A far better test to tell if there are varietal differences discernible would be to take the several varieties from several producers and see if they can be told apart.

    I would guess that Pride Merlots and Cabs are distinguishable. I would guess that Duckhorn’s Cabs and Merlots would be less distinguishable but that its Zin blend, Paraduxx, would stand out. I woudl guess that Beringer Bancroft Merlot would be immediately distinguishable from Beringer Private Reserve Cab.

    Putting lots of wines from one location in a big muddle is, in my humble opinion, a really inappropriate way to taste for varietal precision because of the elements mentioned in the comment above, and also because we know that, at least in the Cabs and Merlots, there is a fair amount of blending of the varieties (see Duckhorn).

  11. Re Adam Japko.

    To me, not so amazing unless they were told there was a ringer and told to look for it.

    We make too much of these findings when they are not in an way part of a controlled test and they have overlapping, and thus typicity denying, factors at play.

  12. Charlie,

    Everyone knew there was one Grenache ringer. They are all experienced palates. I was the only one to pick it out though, pretty much based on color only, having had the wine three times before.

  13. Adam, good and helpful clarification. Thanks. And well-done on your part to pick out the ringer.

    What do you learn from this experience? I could put words in your mouth but better that you state your own conclusions than that I and the rest of us guess at them.

  14. I was literally amazed that this group of advanced tasters I taste with regularly know very well, failed to get at the Grenache. My own success was unfair, knowing the color of A Tribute to Grace as very light, almost diluted, with a slight dirty brown hue.

    My takeaway (actually confirmation) from this tasting was that a wide range of styles, even across a tightly defined spectrum like2009 pinot, will create enough intellectual angst to challenge the best tasters with knowledgeable edges from picking out a distinct wine for one reason or another. Just too much going on with so many wines and styles to get at varietal roots, for example.

  15. Charlie:

    My comments about typicity/correctness/quality were made with the context of regional and varietal character in mind. While the permutations are numerous, I thing someone making a living of wine assessment ought to make it a point to make a study of these traits and characteristics.
    Those that do can be called “professionals” and “experts” the same way a Psychiatrist, an Orthopod or Endocrinologist are – for the same reasons: they make a continued study of the subject/product at the center of their profession.

  16. I simply refuse to believe that, with a palate like yours, you found it difficult to identify the Viogniers :)

  17. Vinogirl, when these full-bodied white wines are high in alcohol, heavily oaked, aged on the lees, etc. they do tend to be more similar.

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