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Wednesday wraparound: European palates and “a hole in the middle”

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I was talking with a Russian River Valley winemaker the other day, and she told me that, of all the American critics she follows, I have the most “European palate.”

I was surprised, although I didn’t say anything, because I always think of myself as having a Californian palate. After all, I love our wines (at their best), even as others—mainly Europhiles and New Yawkahs—slam them for being too ripe/sweet/fruity/oaky/alcoholic/name your insult. I’m a sucker for a complex Chardonnay, captivated by Cabernet, sent into swoons by a great Syrah, tickled pink by Pinot Noir, and since I’m running out of alliterative steam, I’ll stop here.

But my fondness for California wine doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate wines from Old Europe. I’ve tasted a lot of Spanish, Italian, French and German wines in my time, and been knocked out by great bottles old and new. The winemaker who told me I have a “European palate” did so, I think, because I give her Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays high scores, even though they’re comparatively acidic and tannic compared to many of her California colleagues’ wines that are riper and more accessible. So she figures I must like a more austere wine, one that only shows its glories with some bottle age—in other words, that I have a European palate.

The truth is, I like to think I have a catholic [small “c”] palate, which is to say I appreciate quality no matter how it expresses itself. That’s why I can never understand these California bashers. After all, if I can find pleasure in a European wine, then why can’t they find pleasure in a California wine?

* * *

In another conversation I had, with a second Russian River Valley winemaker, we were talking about the 2012 vintage (which believe me is being hyped up and down the state like no other vintage in years), and he offered the only criticism I’ve heard so far. “At the very least it’s a very good year,” he began. “The easiest thing to tell early on [with a vintage] is when it’s a bad year!” Then he added, “If I have a worry, yields were too high, so we did a lot of bleed off, saignée. Like in 1997, some of the wines developed a bit of a hole in the middle, and that’s a concern this year.”

This concept of “a hole in the middle” refers to wines that may smell great and enter powerfully, but then something falls off in the concentration or intensity that lowers the score. I find this a lot, and it’s always disappointing; it can resemble the effects of overcropping. In any wine, you want concentration that’s consistent all the way through. That doesn’t mean sheer power. Power by itself is boring. Concentration means power + elegance. Clearly, the Russian River Valley winemaker’s concern is that the high yield will dilute concentration, especially in that middle palate which is so sensitive to the slightest variations of intensity. That is why the winemaker practiced saignée, which normally is used in the production of rosés. The juice is drained or “bled” off after limited contact with the skins, meaning that the remaining juice has greater time on the skins and presumably becomes fuller-bodied.

I’m not sure that’s the best way to restore concentration. After all, if it’s not there initially, then skin contact isn’t going to restore it. But a wine with a hole in the middle can be made to feel fuller through this method. However, I haven’t heard this concern from any other winemaker in the few months since the vintage ended. Indeed, last week in Santa Barbara they were practically turning cartwheels over 2012. Winemakers always fib about vintages, of course; even in a notoriously bad one they’ll tell you that their neighbors suffered from frost/smoke taint/mold/rain/whatever but they didn’t. But in the case of 2012 the hurrahs are so widespread I just have to assume there’s a “there” there. We’ll see.

  1. Matt Meyer says:

    This entry reminded me of a Simpsons epsiode. Easily digestible and enjoyable. Changing topic halfway through (European palate to 2012 vintage), with small lessons scattered throughout.

  2. Steve –

    I think the only tangible concern about 2012 for wineries so far has to do more with quantity than quality. Yields came in so much higher than everyone expected that it has created a number of economic issues. A lot of wineries got stretched financially during this harvest due to bigger than expected costs (fruit, barrels, crush, etc). They/we won’t be able to start to re-coup those outlays for at least another year (and longer) and while we’re still in a slowly recovering economy, I think it’s going to be interesting to see how adept we all can be at moving 50%+ more inventory than what we had all planned for.

    Of course, having a lot of very good wine is a much better problem than having a lot of not-so-great wine.

    Best regards,
    Brian

  3. Mike Officer/Carlisle Winery says:

    2012 in the North Coast was a great year for growers. It was certainly not a bad year for wines and is at least good. But great? Too early to say. Like your RRV winemaker, it reminds me of 1997, another big crop year that produced plenty of immediately accessible wines that often did not age particularly well. Will the wines from 2012 have enough dry extract to buffer alcohol for the long haul? I don’t know. However, it seems to me that the greatest years for wine typically have inclement weather at bloom/set, perhaps even at bud break. There were no such weather issues in 2012 on the North Coast. Could it be that the weather was too perfect? We shall see.

  4. Steve,

    Down here in Ballard Canyon, Santa Barbara County, by withholding irrigation every year, we aim for a conservative, naturally balanced and concentrated crop. Because of dry farming, 2012 yields were only slightly higher than 2010. Certainly not a “bumper crop”.

    We didn’t feel the need to bleed, but we did do an early pick on both Sangiovese and Grenache at the beginning of September to make a high acid, low alcohol rose. Because these two varietals threw a bit more fruit than usual in 2012, this early pick lessened the crop load and gave the red wines more concentration. With over a month between the rose wine pick and the red wine pick, the vines had time to react to the first harvest and devote energy to the remaining crop.

    For most Cali roses, and in fact, most old world pink wines, I generally prefer this “presse” style of rose rather than saignee. Salmon color, low alcohol, refreshing, and perfect for every beach from Cassis to Jalama. I’m looking forward to a very rose drenched 2013 Summer!

  5. Matt Meyer, it’s The Simpsons without commercials!

  6. Marlene Rossman says:

    The “critic” with the most European palate is Steve Tanzer.

  7. Marlene: I would agree with that!

  8. Our reds are still going through malo, so it’s hard to make a pronouncement beyond “looks promising” and “man that was a lot of fruit”. But hope springs eternal….

  9. David Rossi says:

    I share the same concerns as the winemaker you talked to. It was great for growers(and they needed a good year), but the quality is not necessarily that great. A lot of saignée. It will be a good vintage but not great. Basically the reverse of 2011 where yields were terribly low, but quality was tremendous.

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