If California has taught the world anything, and I hope and like to think it has, it’s that the first duty of a wine is to be delicious.
Not ageable. Delicious.
Some wine critics look at ageability as something desirable. They swoon over wines that are tannic, mute and stubborn in youth, rhapsodizing over what they will turn into some day—10, 20, 30 years down the road—when they become nectar. And sure, there’s a handful of wines in the world that do become special in old age
There are two flaws in this vision, though. The first is that the appreciation of old wine is an acquired taste. Most people who have never developed that particular esthetic would find an aged wine—I mean one that has actually developed bouquet and cellar character, not one that’s simply old—disagreeable.
The second fly in the ointment is this: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the entire notion of aging wine arose during the 1700s and 1800s (after proper bottles and stoppers were invented) because many of the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy were so tannic that they were basically undrinkable during their early years. The French figured out that if they lay the bottles on their sides, in a cool place where the temperature couldn’t do them any harm, those pesky tannins would eventually fall out. The wine then could be carefully decanted, with the sediment falling into the shoulder, and the resulting liquid would pour clear and sweet.
Do you think the French would have made less tannic wines if they’d possessed the ability to do so? I do. There was nothing particularly advantageous in having to store wine for so many years. It took up space, it required management, it was tedious, and the bottles developed notoriously unevenly. The French (and their English, Belgian, Swiss, Danish and other customers) just wanted something to drink that was, well, delicious. That they had to wait for years was simply an accident of technology: modern methods of tannin management, including developments in the vineyard and in the winery, didn’t yet exist.
Well, they do now. Take Napa Valley Cabernet. I’ve heard many French people say how tannic they find it, which is weird, because I think Grand Cru Bordeaux is really tannic. Regardless of who’s right or wrong on that score, Napa Valley Cabernet is tannic, because the grape’s thick skins make it so. But vintners have developed all sorts of ways to soften those tannins, fundamentally changing their molecular structure to make them feel silkier. The result, in a wine like (for example) Monticelllo’s 2008 Corley Reserve, is spectacular deliciousness. Nor is this yummy factor limited to Cabernet, as evidenced by (another example; I could have cited dozens) Roessler’s 2009 Hein Family Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Anderson Valley, rich, glyceriney and delicious.
Had the Bordelais and Burgundians been able to produce wines like these, I’m positive they would have, and this whole notion of cellaring wines would never have assumed the proportions it has. An entire industry of refrigerated storage units and customized residential cellars might not even exist. But that’s not how things turned out. The French were utterly unable to manage their tannins, and so history took a different turn.
I sometimes think that the anti-California wine crowd out there has a problem with immediate gratification. They’re like Puritans who think life should be hard. Any joy, in the way of dancing, movies, sex, luxuriating in food and drink, is bad. It’s not just California wine they complain about, it’s the California style itself: hedonistic, sensuous, physically beautiful, playful, sexy, celebratory rather than stoical, fun. To condemn California for being all glittery surface and no substance is very old and widespread, but isn’t it always tinged with a little jealousy? Our wine, too, is criticized, but it has taught the world to see fruit in a different way that has improved wine everywhere.
Further reflections on terroir: Does Pinot Noir show more of it than Cabernet Sauvignon? PLUS a reader survey
Before we get into terroir, I want to ask you to take a reader survey. You can click here to access it. My blog is 4-1/2 years old now, and it’s time for me to take it to the next level, whatever that is. The information this survey provides will help me enormously, and I’m grateful to you for taking a moment of your time. Rest assured, the information is completely anonymous. I’ll have no idea who you are. The survey software simply crunches the numbers I need. I’ll keep you posted on future developments. Thank you.
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So does Pinot show more terroir than Cabernet? This question popped up in the comments section last week when I was exploring these issues of terroir. Then I got my latest copy of Anthony Dias Blue’s trade magazine, The Tasting Panel, in which the one and only Fred Dame, M.S., a former president of the Court of Master Sommeliers, has a conversation with his fellow M.S., Emmanuel Kemiji, whom I first met when he was wine director at the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton.
Emmannual made this remark:
Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape variety driven more by its character than where it comes from, quite unlike Pinot Noir.
When I read that, I went, Wow. When I was coming up in my wine education [early 1980s], everything I read–and I read a lot–addressed the importance of terroir in Bordeaux. The Classified Growths along the Haut Médoc were in the Goldilocks porridge geography of just right with respect to the Atlantic. They were far enough away from the marshy palus along the Gironde. The best growths were those with the best drainage. Haut-Brion was great because it sat on piles of gravel. And so on. Even within the individual communes, terroir showed its hand: Margaux were lighter and more elegant, Pauillac firm, Saint-Estephe tannic. For centuries Bordeaux–the region–defined Bordeaux–the wine–with its own inimitable character.
So how could it be that Cabernet is defined more by character than terroir?
And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I decided that, yes, Emmanuel is onto something. I’m not sure how he defines the “character” of Cabernet Sauvignon, but I would define the best of them from California (which is to say Napa Valley) as full-bodied, dry and tannic, with intense, spicy flavors to which oak often brings a hint of chocolate.
Having said that, the above description could apply to hundreds of California Cabernets, most of which are perfectly nice for drinking, but not major league. To achieve major league status, you have to have something more than merely that generic oak-aged Cabernet-y quality.
It’s not until you get to Napa Valley that you find that “something more.” Which isn’t to say there aren’t great Cabernets elsewhere, but they tend to be outliers. Napa sits in the sweet spot: warm-hot enough to get the grapes nice and ripe, yet not so hot as the Central Valley. Cool-foggy enough at night to preserve acidity, yet not as chilly as, say, Carneros. Another just-right case of Goldilocks porridge.
Cabernet does have powerful “character,” but just what it brings to Napa’s terroir, and vice versa, is ultimately unanswerable. They work in tandem. Each distinct area within the valley boosts them in different ways: Yountville will accentuate tannins and earth, Howell Mountain power-packs everything, Rutherford brings that dustiness and herbs and often pushes the black fruit into the red direction. Atlas Peak brings minerality, west Oakville perhaps the most opulent peacock’s tail of everything, Pritchard Hill that high-alcohol delirious headiness. Yet these are subdivisions of a single entity, Napa Valley, that you have to concede offers sublime Cabernet Sauvignon.
And then we come to Pinot Noir. Does Pinot, in and of itself, have less “character” than Cabernet Sauvignon, making it more contingent on where it’s grown? I suppose in one sense, that’s true, because Pinot is lighter and more delicate, which would suggest that it is a site-specific grape and wine.
But great Pinot Noir now comes from an extraordinary range of places, stretching along 500 miles or more of California coast, while we still have that anomaly of great Cabernet Sauvignon isolated in one small region, Napa Valley. So I’m not sure it’s true that Pinot Noir is more terroir-driven than Cabernet, unless you’re prepared to say that 500 miles of coast constitutes a single terroir. Moreover, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to tell the difference between, say, a Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir from a Santa Lucia Highlands or a Russian River Valley. (You can do it when you know what you’re tasting, but it’s much harder in a blind set-up.)
Still, I think I know what Emmanuel means because it’s that very lightness and transparency that make great Pinot Noir so exciting. In the end, though, I don’t think we have to compare Pinot and Cabernet and wonder which is more or less terroir-driven, more or less transparent, more or less susceptible to winemaker interventions, or which has more or less inherent character. It’s when we get into these angels-dancing-on-pinheads theological debates that we lose sight of the simple things: Napa Valley is great Cabernet terroir, coastal California is great Pinot terroir.
Please do my survey!
A reader made the following comment yesterday on my most recent post, Terroir and cru: an exploration. I don’t usually reproduce reader comments in full, but this one contains many interesting and complex points I want to address. Here’s his comment:
Steve, there are many problems with California ever establishing a reputation with any level of authenticity.
First and foremost is one of genuine sincerity. Quite honestly this just reeks of Napa’s latest marketing gimmick. It’s hard to listen to anyone from Napa/Sonoma discuss terroir knowing full well that during their heady Parker fueled era of success, they stenuously discounted the notion of terroir. It was, after all, about what happened in the cellar when (fill in name), superstar-genius-rockstar winemaker made the magic happen.
So, where does this newfound respect for terroir come from? Could it be borne of the desperation of market rejection, particularly in those sought after major metropolitan markets? In Chicago, you can’t give away expensive California wine, and I’ve heard that the situation is similar in New York, Washington, Boston and even San Franscisco. I can’t count how many restaurants have opened with all-euro winelists in the Chicago market over the last eighteen months. Conversely, I can’t think of one (outside of steakhouses) that’s opened that prominently featured high end Napa/Sonoma wine and none (even counting steakhouses) that focused on it exclusively.
Beyond issues of sincerity and authenticity is the issue of establishing terroir in California where the notion of vineyard designates has been corrupted to utter irrelevancy. When an admittedly quality vineyard such as Truchard of Hudson encompossas hundreds of planted vines, how does one seriously maintain that it has any real sense of terroir. Lee Hudson’s vineyard would, by European standards, encompass hundreds of indivdual terroirs–some premier cru, some village level and maybe even a couple of grand cru. Is Lee going to allow an outside authority to determine that–and thus what he can charge for his grapes? I doubt it. Also, simply calling a particular piece of land a vineyard (a’la “my daughter/wife/great grandmother’s vineyard” or “dollarsaddlehidestick vineyard” and have it immediately mean something is not how the game works. That’s marketing not the estblishment of a true AOC/DOCG sytem.
The notion of California terroir will go nowhere because their [sic] is no genuine belief in it by those who will tout it only for marketing reasons and there are powerful vested interests who will line up against it.
Many of the opinions expressed above are widely shared throughout American wine circles. Anyone in this industry is aware of them. In essence, it’s a critique of California wine reduced to the following points:
-California wine has become Parkerized.
-Parkerization is a code word for too high in alcohol, too ripe, too oaky.
-As a result, the wines lose their connection with terroir–the ground in which they were born–and become internationalized in style.
-There is a movement afoot now whereby consumers are rejecting such wines.
-Producers of these wines increasingly must resort to marketing tricks in order to sell them.
We’ve heard all this before. It’s an old argument but it does have its adherents and the issues need to be addressed whenever they arise. The truth is that the style of ultraripe wines, especially in Cabernet Sauvignon, is one that people like. That’s why producers make these wines: because they find favor among buyers. I myself reject the argument that high alcohol trumps terroir because it makes no sense. Logically, there is no reason for that to be true. Those who believe it have to assert that something in the ground that is transmitted to the wine can only be expressed if the ABV is below a certain number. That is implausible to me. After all, alcohol levels have been rising in France, too, so one would have to argue that even in France, the notion of terroir is being lost. Eventually one becomes a terroir-ideologue, finding violations everywhere, fixated on a romantic notion that doesn’t exist.
Some consumers may well be rejecting high-end, expensive, high alcohol Napa Valley Cabernets, but I would suggest that is due more to the economy than to any shifting in taste. When the Recession hit, everything pricy got hit. Napa Valley wine will find its way, I’m sure, as recovery occurs.
As for those “marketing reasons” producers rely on to tout their terroir, nothing new there either. Bordeaux and Burgundy have been doing it forever. That’s what high-end wine does: tries to convince people it’s special due to its ground and that no other wine can ever be quite like it. The Napans learned that from the French. Yes, Colgin does it. Continuum does it. Harlan does it. Screaming Eagle does it. Ditto Araujo, Dalla Valle, anything with the word To Kalon or Tokalon on it, Shafer, Staglin, Ovid, Diamond Creek, Vineyard 7&8, Duckhorn. Lord knows I’ve criticized some proprietors for not letting me taste their wines blind, which is a marketing trick if you ask me. But that’s not to say they’re not in possession of spectacular terroir capable of producing spectacular wines. They boast about their terroir because it’s real, not because they’re trying to trick people into thinking it’s real. In other words, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
So you can see I reject most of my reader’s comment. But I do thank him for reading my blog and for taking the time to express his opinions, which I respect. I just don’t happen to agree with them.
The conversation of whether California Chardonnays or Rieslings age or don’t age rarely happens, and for good reason: few do, and most people don’t care about aging white wines the way they do with reds. Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “age.” Most any wine will last for a while before becoming utterly undrinkable, whatever that means. By “aging” we mean to indicate several qualities about a wine: that it becomes better (again, whatever that means) – that it becomes more interesting (but this is in the eye of the beholder) – that the connoisseur will appreciate it whereas a novice might not (but we have to be careful with such descriptors) – that it is worthy of respect to still be clean and drinkable at a great age – that it has transcended its fruity origins (primary) and achieved secondary or tertiary characteristics.
That long opening paragraph is meant to indicate some of the problems or issues involving older wines. Tasting an old wine that is, by some sort of common critical consensus, “properly aged” is not a simple matter, cut-and-dried, like determining whether or not milk is fresh or spoiled.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I can tell you about a tasting yesterday at RN74 in San Francisco of some wines from the famous Stony Hill Vineyard. In case you don’t know, Stony Hill is one of California’s and certainly one of Napa Valley’s oldest, continually-operated wineries, run by the founding family–in this case, the McCreas. Fred and Eleanor bought their property high up on Spring Mountain in 1943, and nine years later, in 1952, they produced their first vintage of Chardonnay. Riesling subsequently followed, and, in 2009, they made their first-ever Cabernet Sauvignon, released just a month or so ago.
(Trivia segue: Only three wineries in Napa Valley that were in business in 1952 are still owned and operated by the same families today: Stony Hill, Charles Krug [by the Peter Mondavi family] and–who’s the third? Guess. The answer is at the end of this post. First to get it right gets a free lifetime subscription to steveheimoff.com.)
Anyway, here are my notes. I’m not scoring the wines because in my judgment it’s harder to rate old white wines like these than younger ones since the perception of them is so varied. Besides, I obviously tasted them openly and that is not my usual tasting procedure.
2010 Chardonnay: Classic Stony Hill style, dry, minerally and citrusy, with little apparent oak. (The alcohol on all the Chardonnays is in the 13% range, give or take a little.)
2006 Chardonnay: Shy at first, then lemon verbena and mineral notes. Drying out a little. Somewhere between fresh and aged, indeterminate. Something mushroomy suggests wild mushroom risotto.
2001 Chardonnay: Spectacular. Roasted honey, dried lime, minerals, salt. Fruit fading into the background. Interesting and nuanced.
1997 Chardonnay: So clean and inviting. Really stands out. Honey, sweet cream, Meyer lemons, vanilla. Obviously no longer young, but fresh, tangy, vibrant.
1994 Chardonnay: Clearly an old Chard, but no trace of corruption. Nuts, sherry-like oxidation, dried fruits and honey. So dry, with mouthwatering acidity.
1982 Chardonnay: Botrytis shows in the sweetness. Impressive for 30 years in the bottle, but for me the sweetness is off-putting.
1978 Chardonnay: A touch of corkiness? Or just getting old? Whatever, it’s dry, creamy and nutty, with Meyer lemons, minerals and pears. Perfectly fine and complex. 38 years old and still kicking!
1992 White Riesling: At 20 years, such a wonderful wine. Off-dry, honeyed, brilliantly crisp, offering ripe orange blossom, green apple and mango flavors. Has at least 10 more years ahead.
1988 White Riesling: Has picked up an old gold color. Very pure aromas. Old, filled with tertiary notes, not for everyone. Dry, delicate, brittle, sweet toffee, grapefruit, lemon zest, salty. Some oxidation, like a manzanilla sherry.
2009 Cabernet Sauvignon: Their first Cab ever. Made in an old style: 13.5% alcohol, tight, tannic, bone dry, earthy, with sour red cherry and red currant fruit. Fans of ripe, opulent, high alcohol Cabs might not like it. Will age for many decades. I would love to taste this wine in 2029 and maybe I will.
Answer to trivia segue: Nichelini.
A few days ago, I blogged on how Cabernet is more forgiving of slight problems than Pinot Noir, because it’s more tannic and fuller-bodied, whereas Pinot’s transparency reveals the slightest flaw.
Adam Lee, the co-proprietor (with his wife, Dianna) of Siduri and Novy, wrote in to ask if I think Syrah also covers its flaws, since it’s a full-bodied, somewhat heavy wine, like Cabernet. I replied, “my sense is that Syrah has more faults to begin with than Cabernet and doesn’t do a good job at all of hiding them.”
A tasting yesterday of coastal California Syrahs confirmed that impression. Although all the wines had good fruit, each displayed problems significant enough to keep the scores well below 90 points. In some cases, particularly along the Central Coast, acidity was too high, making the wines sour. In several cases, I detected the unmistakable smell of brettanomyces–that funky, disagreeable odor of stinky armpits. Now, a touch of brett doesn’t bother me, but on some of yesterday’s wines, it was so strong that, on the wine with the most powerful brett smell, my head actually recoiled as soon as I inhaled from the glass, and I had the fleeting sensation of whiplash. (That would be an interesting lawsuit: Wine critic sues winery over neck injury caused by ‘stinky’ wine”)
Even the best Syrah from yesterday’s tasting couldn’t rise above a certain simplicity. All jammy fruit and oak, no depth or complexity.
I went and looked at my Syrah scores since early summer, and, while there were a handful in the 92-95 point range, most suffered from one or more of the defects I mentioned above. It needs to be said that many of these Syrahs were not expensive: let’s say, they fell into the $20-$40 range. Yes, that’s not exactly an everyday price for most consumers, but it’s nowhere near what the best Cabernet costs these days, so I guess you get what you pay for.
It’s always a chicken-and-egg question with Syrah, whether it would be better if vintners could charge more for it, or whether they could charge more if it were better. Certainly, if you know the most you can wholesale your Syrah for is $12-$15, you’re going to cut a few corners. You’ll want to maximize yield, not invest in new barrels, and maybe be less discerning during the sorting process. When you can charge a lot of money for your wine–say you’re Jayson Woodbridge, at Hundred Acre ($300 a bottle for Cabernet)–you do whatever it takes to make the wine great.
Syrah’s easy to grow almost anywhere, just like Cabernet. It’s not a particularly fussy grape, like Pinot Noir or even Zinfandel, which ripens notoriously unevenly. Stick Syrah in the ground and you’ll usually get some pretty good grapes. In some ways it’s even more versatile than Cabernet, because it will grow in cool climates (Carneros, Sta. Rita Hills) or warm ones (Napa Valley, Paso Robles), and you can produce good wines from both regions.
The problem seems to be that price point. Syrah is stuck. Winemakers can’t raise the price, which means they can’t raise quality. That’s an awful place to be, for any product. It’s almost as if consumers intuit Syrah’s problems and shy away from it. Certainly, all the Syrah jokes (comparisons with pneumonia and V.D.) are tragicomedies with real world consequences. Syrah is a noble variety and can do astounding things. But it’s not going to in California as long as those price and quality wheels are stuck in the muddy ditch. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’ll also say this: I do not think that Rhône red blends are the next big thing. If anything is harder to get right in California than Syrah, it’s Grenache and Mourvedre!
I’ve maintained for a long time that I like equally California’s two greatest red wine–Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. You can’t say that one is better than the other because it’s not. Two different wines, often starkly different, for different purposes, meant to drink with different foods (mostly. A char-broiled filet mignon will happily adapt to either).
But then I had the occasion to look at my scores over the past year in the database, and found that at the very highest levels–97 and above–there’s considerably more Cabernet than Pinot. Then, in the mid-90 point range, that dominance actually increases. It’s not until you get to the low 90s (still very good scores) that the scales even out, with Pinot showing up in slightly greater numbers than Cabernet.
I find this fascinating, because in numbers are contained patterns, and patterns reveal underlying truths that sometimes escape our casual eyes.
One reason why Cabernet gets more very high scores than Pinot Noir is because it’s relatively easier to make great Cab than to make great Pinot. Cabernet is a more forgiving grape for the winemaker. It’s less susceptible to vintage variations, weather and local micro-terroir perturbations, probably because of its thicker skins. That is to say, it’s not as transparent a reflector of its terroir as Pinot Noir.
There are many fabulous California Cabernet Sauvignons (and Bordeaux blends) and if they open themselves to the accusation of similarity (they all tend to feel and taste the same due to their international style), that feeling and taste nonetheless rank them among the top wines of the world. If you have a liking for this style (and I do), it’s easy to taste as many Napa Valley Cabs as I do and find yourself routinely awarding them exceptionally high scores. At the level we’re talking about–95 points and above–the distinctions between them are really very minor. One wine might score 97 one day, 96 the next day, 98 the day after, due to natural vagaries. This style of Cabernet has been heavily influenced by a variety of factors (names like Michel Rolland, David Abreu and Philippe Melka keep popping up), more proof of the old adages, (1) imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and (2) if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.
Pinot Noir on the other hand, as I stated, is transparent. What that means to me is that the slightest discrepancy is instantly perceived. It may have a little too much acidity, or a tiny bit of veggie. The mouthfeel can be off in some subtle but noticeable way. It could be over-oaked. Pinot Noir loves oak, but since it does tend to be delicate, all that sweet toast and vanilla can swamp it. You remember that old tale of the Princess and the pea? She was so physically sensitive that she was disturbed in her sleep by a tiny little pea buried underneath 20 mattresses and featherbeds. That’s how it is with Pinot Noir.
I think that accounts for the skew in scoring. Pinot just reveals its flaws in a way that Cabernet, being bigger and more tannic, doesn’t. Cabernet is not better than Pinot Noir at the highest levels in California, but there are considerably more great Cabernets than there are great Pinot Noirs. That seems destined to remain the case. California has found the best places to grow Pinot Noir. I don’t think there are any dark horses waiting to be discovered along the coast. This means that acreage of the top sites is tapped out, or will be within a few years. Cabernet Sauvignon on the other hand has plenty of room to grow. There are so many hospitable places for it beyond Napa Valley: Lake County and Happy Canyon, to name but two. I expect in ten years the ratio of great Cabs to great Pinots will be even greater than it is today, but perhaps, in a funny way, that makes coming across a great Pinot Noir even more exciting, because you know how rare it is.