“Intriguing blemishes” a factor in good wine?
Randy Caparosa, in the December, 2012 issue of The Tasting Panel, writes: You do not go to Mendocino in search of “perfectly balanced” wines. What you can find are wines with intriguing blemishes: strong earth tones, prickling acidity, stringy tannins, strange or exotic aromas, seemingly from another planet. But at least they are real—distinctly “Mendocino”—which is why many sommeliers are loving it!
It took me three days of thinking about this before I realized I didn’t know what it meant. Or do I? There is, indeed, something to be said about wines that march to the beat of a different drummer. They can surprise, stun, make you look differently at varieties you thought you knew, or regions you believed you understood. On the other hand, the concept of “intriguing blemishes” is new for me.
Inherent in Randy’s comment, of course, is the notion that “perfectly balanced” is not the sine qua non of great wine. I would have thought it was: if “perfectly balanced” is not the highest good to which a wine can attain, then what is?
Well, that was my immediate reaction. Then I dug into Wine Enthusiast’s database to find instances where I used “perfectly balanced” or its close kin, “perfect balance.” Here are some I found from the past year: J. Lohr 2009 Carol’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (92 points), Robert Mondavi 2011 Moscato d’Oro (88 points), Ram’s Gate 2010 Durell Vineyards Chardonnay (93 points), Round Pond 2011 Sauvignon Blanc (90 points), Morgan 2011 Double L Vineyard Riesling (88 points), Jarvis 2006 Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (96 points) and Sanguis 2010 Postcard From Morocco white Rhône-style blend (93 points).
This made me question what I mean by “perfect balance.” After all, if a wine can be perfectly balanced, yet score “only” 88 or 90 points, then “perfect balance” does not mean absolute perfection; if it did, the wine would score 100 points. So in what way is “perfect balance” merely a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition, for greatness?
When I think of balance, I think of a flawless equilibrium of the important parts of a wine that give it structure and overall integrity: acidity, tannins, oak integration [if any], minerality [ditto], and the spectrum of fruit-herb-earth-and spice flavors. If all these elements seem in harmony, with nothing sticking out (new oak is the sticky-outest thing a California wine can have, although acidity and tannins can be, too), then the wine is thought to have balance. Of course, “perfect” balance means calibrating degrees of balance; that is an angels-dancing-on-pinheads conversation we can have at another time!
What lifts a wine beyond “perfect balance” into true perfection is harder to define, and depends on certain assumptions, not all of which everyone may share. First is that certain varieties or families of varieties are noble whereas most others are not; and a non-noble wine cannot be perfect regardless of how good it is as an example of its type. I believe this. In California, it means that a Sauvignon Blanc-based white wine is never truly great, although the best of them can approach greatness. The same is true of a California Moscato or Riesling. This is why the Mondavi, Round Pond and Morgan wines are not perfect wines, despite their perfect balance.
The same is probably true of a California Syrah or Rhône red or white blend. In theory, I suppose, one could be perfect, especially a red, and especially if based on Syrah, which is a noble variety in France. I haven’t run across a perfect Rhône-style California red wine yet, but I’d like to, and I have an idea what it would taste and feel like: massive, dense, dark, deeply delicious, yet singularly well-structured and dry. We’ll just have to wait and see if one comes along.
Then we come to the Bordeaux-style wines I found to have perfect balance this past year, of which the Jarvis can stand as an example. At 96 points, it’s not far from absolute perfection. On another day, it might have shown even better. The thing to understand about these very high scores, from the mid-90s on up to 100, is that there is a certain subjectivity in these judgments. Perhaps “subjectivity” isn’t exactly the word I’m looking for. “Experiential variation of beauty” is more precise, although wordier. I hate to drag the psychedelic realm into this (and for me, it’s been many decades since I last tinkered), but on a high induced by a mind-altering drug, like LSD, one can experience beauty and meaning of such staggering power, in which the boundaries between self and not-self are transcended, that the memory remains forever seared into the mind. Yet at the same time, one realizes that this experience also is fragile to the point of ephemerality.
This ephemerality marks a perfect wine, or one’s appreciation of it. One captures it (or vice versa) at the most perfect moment in time—serendipitous for both the wine and for the person who drinks it. Mysterious, undefinable essences merge into something that overwhelms all further judgment into a single focus of wonder; one might even call it ecstasy. Whatever that thing is, or however you define it, “perfect balance” doesn’t adequately describe it.
I think that’s what Randy was hinting at. But we have to reconsider that more troubling phrase, “intriguing blemishes.” What does that mean?
Human analogies are necessary. “Blemish” in the most common usage refers to skin conditions, usually on young people. They are not generally considered “intriguing,” which is why there are so many anti-pimple ointments on the market. There are other sorts of “blemishes” (or perhaps “imperfections” is a better word) that we treat more kindly. Barbra Streisand’s nose has been, next to her voice, her most salient physical feature, and I think it’s fair to say no one ever said she wasn’t a beautiful women despite it. Would you say “because of it”? I wouldn’t. I don’t think Streisand’s nose makes her more beautiful than she would be with a “perfect” nose (whatever that is). But on this, we can disagree.
I have never used the word “imperfection” in a wine review, but I do frequently use the word “flaw” or “flawed,” and by it I never mean anything other than a negative criticism. Medicinal tastes, green, vegetal notes, mold, volatile acidity, excessive softness, violent tannins, wateriness—these are flaws, perhaps not technical ones but flaws nonetheless; and they are never charming or “intriguing.” I do use the word “intriguing” with some regularity, and by it I mean to pay a compliment. Last year, for example, I plugged it into reviews for Cuvaison 2010 Chardonnay, Saxon Brown 2009 Durell Vineyard Hayfield Block Pinot Noir, Bella Victoria 2009 Elena Syrah, Cambria 2009 Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, and a few others. What I mean by “intriguing” are elements, usually beginning in the aroma and extending into the taste, that are not front-and-center (that’s usually, in California, the fruit), but pop up around the edges—things like bacon or charred meat, flowers, tobacco, stone, dried fruits, pine, mushroom, soy sauce, steel, mulch. These notes bring complexity to the wine: “intriguing” is a good word that connotes additional interest.
Still, I can’t in my mind conjoin “intriguing” and “blemishes” to come up with anything good. “Earth tones, prickling acidity, stringy tannins, strange or exotic aromas…” “Earthiness” isn’t a blemish, it’s a vital component of certain wines. If acidity is “prickling,” then it’s too high, unless it’s in a sparkling wine; “prickling” sounds like a secondary fermentation in the bottle that was unintended. I don’t know exactly what Randy means by “stringy” tannins; that’s a word I don’t use, but it doesn’t sound complimentary. “Strange or exotic” aromas? What are those? Exotic sounds okay, but strange? I don’t want no strangeness in my wine’s smells.
I’d love to hear from Randy and my readers more about specific wines that possess this oxymoronic quality of “intriguing blemishes.”