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The internationalization of style is no friend of blind tasting

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The embarrassment of mistaking a California Pinot Noir for Merlot, or a Merlot for a Zinfandel or Petite Sirah, or a Malbec for Cabernet Sauvignon, can be acute, for someone known as a wine critic. Surely a person of that stature should be able to tell the difference between major varieties!

Well, not necessarily. When I was reviewing 15 wines a day, blind, I would sometimes include different varietals in the lineup and try to figure them out. My success rate was good but not great, although I will say that I had a far easier time discerning the wine’s inherent quality, regardless of what grapes constituted it.

Why do we think we ought to be able to identify varieties blind? Who put that idea into our heads? In my case it came from reading the books of the great, primarily British wine writers of the last 100 years. They made such a fuss of the differences between, say, Saint-Estephe and Margaux, or Musigny and Nuits-Saint-Georges, not to mention the Rhône Valley which was a bit of a mystery to them, that one such as I, who had aspirations of my own, felt compelled to develop that unerring palate of detailed perspicacity.

It helped to fuel this ambition to taste with vintners who crafted different wines from neighboring vineyards, or even from blocks within the same vineyard. They would tell me of the huge differences between the wines—differences which I found, often as not, to be less than huge. Counter-balancing this was the occasional blind tasting in which vintners could not identify even their own wines! But overall, by the late 1980s I had the thought firmly lodged in my mind that a writer ought to be able to distinguish between different varieties, and, at a higher order of magnitude, between different terroirs of the same variety.

At the same time, for going on thirty years now writers of greater stature than I were expressing the opinion that, in California at least, everything was starting to taste like everything else. This was especially true of red wines. Gerald Asher was one such. In the Preface to his 1986 “On Wine,” a compilation of articles he’d written for Gourmet magazine, Gerald noted that the “universal sophistication” of winemaking technique—“stainless steel, cultured yeasts, temperature-controlled fermentation and clarification by centrifuge” [he might have included picking the grapes riper]—had “imposed the dominant grapy fragrance that brings out similarities in modern wines rather than the bold differences we knew.” He sounds here wistful for a gauzy past (in his case, it would have been the late 1940s and 1950s) when distinctions between appellations were clear and distinct, a situation that apparently had passed by the mid-1980s, when “We find red Graves…that taste like tannic Beaujolais.” !!! As anecdotal proof of this phenomenon of sameness, Gerald cites a Spanish winemaker who told him that “Liebfraumilch was his criterion in making and judging his white Valdepeñas,” an eyebrow-raiser Gerald said was “the inevitable result of marketing wine instead of selling it.”

(Gerald himself wrote self-mockingly about mistaking a Petrus ’64 for a Rutherford Cab, admitting that he should have—but didn’t—wonder who could possibly have been making Napa Cabernet in that style at that time! But then, logic is seldom able to penetrate the fortress-walls of preconception.)

Whether it’s due to marketing, or something else, there can be no doubt that wines from anywhere and everywhere resemble each other more than they used to. Thus the writer/critic may be excused for failing to correctly nail all the contestants in a blind tasting! He can always attribute this to the internationalization of style.

I therefore years ago stopped playing the guessing game in blind tasting, arguing with myself that it was a parlor trick. Far more important than identifying varietal tastes and flavors, for me at any rate, is assessing a wine’s balance. This is why I never criticized a wine for being varietally “incorrect.” Who cares if a Merlot is not particularly Merlot-like as long as it’s luscious? I’ve drank and enjoyed Pinot Noirs that were dark and fruity as Grenache. I’ve sipped Sauvignon Blancs that were oaky and creamy and fruity in the finish that might have been Chardonnay. I’ve had Cabernets as peppery as Syrah, and Petite Sirahs that were as smooth as Cabernet. If the wines were balanced, they were good, and I said so in my reviews, always wondering why this atypicity bothered some critics so much.

Which raises, of course, the question, What then is the difference between a 95 point wine and an 88 point one? Writers have tried for centuries to describe what lifts one wine above another to which it might bear a close resemblance. In fact the Writer’s Full Employment Act is predicated on this very challenge. It has to do with a quality of mouthfeel; the only way to explain it is through analogy. It’s the difference in the fabric of a fine Italian suit and one you buy at Sears. The difference between a weed and a bonsai. It’s the difference between Beethoven played by the San Francisco Symphony as against a high school student orchestra. It’s an experiential quality, intellectual in its most basic form, and it requires experience on the part of the taster to learn to recognize it. (This sounds snobby but isn’t really.)

Is it difficult to reconcile the twin facts of an internationalization of style with degrees of quality? I don’t think so. Styles come and go, but fundamental quality always remains, whether it was the wines of ancient Greece and Rome, the Bordeaux of the 19th century or the wines of modern California. As Jamie Goode writes in his current blog, “Balance is important in wine, and it’s a style call,” which makes it, in his words, “quite personal.” Of course, it was easier in past decades and centuries, when all the important tastemakers agreed on what was “balanced” and what wasn’t; there were just a handful of them (mostly in the English wine trade), and no one would have thought to challenge them. Today, of course, we have a proliferation of wine writers, so ambitious, which makes things more confusing than ever. If someone says something, someone else ridicules it, and the debate goes viral. This is hardly the way to arrive at reasonable conclusions. The anchor of authority regrettably is getting lost, in favor of the flotsam of the masses. Whether this is a good or bad development has yet to be determined.

  1. Thank you, Steve. Nicely said. We all worry about it too much.

  2. mort hochstein says:

    GREAT EXPOSITION.

  3. Agree wholeheartedly. I, too, long ago gave up the “fun” of blind tasting contests and have lamented the loss of identity among producing regions. Many of my recent columns have dealt with wine for Everyman. Note my blog of today about the upcoming Indiana Wine Fair.

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