Why are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay “noble” varieties? Why isn’t Zinfandel? Can Syrah be “noble”? Is sparkling wine “noble”?
First, we have to define “noble.” It’s an oldish word when applied to wine. From Wikipedia: “Noble grapes are any grapes traditionally associated with the highest quality wines. This concept is not as common today, partly because of the proliferation of hybrid grape varieties, and partly because some critics feel that it unfairly prioritizes varieties grown within France. Historically speaking, the noble grapes comprised only six varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.”
It’s tempting for me to side with the democrats [small “d”] in this argument–the ones who feel that de-nobleizing certain varieties because they’re not French is unfair and patronizing. But there are sound reasons for preserving our current understanding of varietal nobility.
The most important of these reasons is that, in California as in France, a handful of varieties clearly makes the best wines, and has for pretty much as long as the state’s wine industry has existed. All I need do is go to Wine Enthusiast’s database to confirm this. Since the first of this year, all 30 of my highest-scoring wines have been either Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, with the single exception of a Nickel & Nickel 2010 Merlot, from the Harris Vineyard, in Oakville. (And I, personally, would not include Merlot among the nobles, at least in California.)
Why do these wines score higher than other varieties? Ahh, here we get into the fuzzy details, which are impossible of proof. But let me try. First and foremost, there is structure, a word that seems comprehensible at first. Structure is architecture: just as you can have the most beautiful stuff (paintings, carpets, furniture, vases) in the world, but it’s only a mere pile if it doesn’t have a room or home in which to reside, so too wine needs walls, a floor, a ceiling, a sense of stolidity and solidity, else it become simple flavor. And flavor, in and of itself, has never been the primary attribute of great wine.
California, of course, has no problem developing flavor, in any variety. That’s due to our climate: grapes ripen dependably. To the extent California wines are the target of criticism, it is because Europhiles find a dreary sameness to too many of them. Even I, as staunch a defender of California wine as there is, find this to be true. Too often, the flavors of red wines suggest blackberries and cherries and chocolate, whether it’s Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Cabernet, Merlot, Tempranillo. It’s easy for such wines to score 87 points, or 89 points, or even 91 points: these are good scores, but not great ones, limited by the wines’ lack of structure.
Structure, of course, is composed primarily of acidity and tannins, the latter of which may come from both the grapes and the oak treatment. (I won’t get into the mysteries of minerality.) Yet there are elements of structure that are more difficult to define. Texture is an element of structure, just as the way a room feels is an element of its architecture. Imagine a room with soaring roof and large windows that let in the sunlight, as opposed to a cramped, pinched room, a closet or storage area. The former feels more satisfactory to our senses and esthetics. So too does a wine with great texture feel superior. It can be the hardest thing in the world to put into words, but even amateurs will appreciate the difference between a beautifully-structured wine and its opposite. (I have proven this many times, with my wine-drinking friends who have but limited understanding of it.)
So why don’t we allow Zinfandel into the ranks of noble wines? I suppose an argument could be made that we should, for at its highest expressions–Williams Selyem, De Loach, Elyse, Ravenswood, Bella, Turley–Zinfandel does fulfill the structural and textural prerequisites of a noble wine. But too often, it does not: a Zinfandel can be classic Zin for its style (Dry Creek Valley, Amador County) and yet be a little rustic, in a shabby-chic way. Sometimes this is due to excessive alcohol, sometimes to overripened fruit, but no matter the cause, and no matter how much fun that Zin is to drink with barbecue, the last thing I’d call most Zins is noble. Zinfandel is Conan the Barbarian, ready to chop your head off and stick it on the tip of a spear.
Can sparkling wine be said to be noble? It is most often, of course, a blend of two noble varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so why not? The answer is as simple as this: We call varieties “noble,” not wine types. Perhaps we should expand the definition of “noble” to include types, not just sparkling blends but Sherry and Port. Certainly these are great wines, if underappreciated nowadays. I keep my eye, also, on some of the surprisingly eccentric red blends being produced lately, mainly by younger winemakers (often in Paso Robles), who are mixing varieties in unprecedented and triumphant ways, proving that a wine doesn’t have to be varietal (as defined by the TTB) in order to be great.
But I’m comfortable for the time being restricting nobility to just a handful of varieties in California: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Not Riesling, not yet, in our state. Not Sauvignon Blanc, not yet, in our state. Not Syrah, not yet, in our state. And not, as I have said, Merlot. Any one of these latter varieties can produce great wine, but it will be the exception.
The 2013 Chardonnay Symposium is all over. My panel was on clones, and the challenge was to take something that could be really dry and academic and make it interesting–not just for the audience, but for me. Because, as I explained in my remarks, when you’re moderating a panel, you’re midway between the audience and the speakers. The latter are the experts, there to deliver high-level information. But the danger with winemakers is that they can get a little too technical and geeky, thereby losing the audience. For an ordinary, wine amateur audience–as this one was at the Chardonnay Symposium–a little geek goes a long way. Fifteen or twenty seconds of segue into clonal trials, framed in high techno-speak, is just about the limit of toleration. Beyond that, you start to see people’s eyes shifting. They look down at their cell phones. You can tell they’re drifting. My job is to hasten things along.
Having said all that, we did learn a lot, everything from the history of Chardonnay on Earth (from nurseryman Eckhard Kaesekamp) to that of the Wente clone (from none other than Karl Wente), to the trials and tribulations of the 1970s and much about the current situation in California. The most interesting question, for me–one that always fascinates me–is, What is the role or impact of the things that Mother Nature brings to wine, relative to that of the things the winemaker brings? Mother Nature is the terroir of climate and soils, as well as the DNA of the particular clone. If someone is making a big deal about the clone–“This clone is floral, or muscatty, or tropical fruity”–does that aspect invariably show with that clone, whether the grapes are grown in the warmer Alexander Valley or the cooler Edna Valley? To me, this is the stuff I love to investigate. The answer is, there can be no answer, which was summed up by Jeff Stewart’s (Hartford Court) assertion that “There are no blanket statements” about clones that are invariable. Comments from other winemakers, including Wente, Merry Edwards and James Ontiveros (Alta Maria and Native 9), made the same point: So much depends on the way that clone reacts to the soils, the weather, and also the rootstock, as well as to the way the winemaker does everything from barrel and malolactic fermentation to sur lie aging and battonage. Clarissa Nagy (Riverbench) described quite poetically this intersection between human and non-human; Matt Dees (Jonata) brought us into the winemaker’s head and how he thinks when approaching the topic of single-clone Chardonnays versus multiple clone blends. Chamisal’s Fintan du Fresne in particular stressed the importance of site over clone, a natural position for him given the intensity of fruit and acidity that Edna Valley wines always display. But in the end, it is really hard to come to any kind of bottom line conclusion concerning what any one clone brings to the table.
No conclusions. Think about it. Think about the millions of words we expend in our conversations about wine, whether they be verbally, in blogs or magazines or textbooks. Think of all the conversations trying to pinpoint just what something means, when the reality is, we never, or only rarely, can know. There are so many things about wine that are fundamentally indeterminate. This is why in olden times they saw wine as a spiritual miracle. Nowadays, despite our science, there remains something Heisenbergian about wine: it’s impossible to pin it down, to get it into clear focus and pick apart the exact function of winemaker technique and Mother Nature, with all their myriad subsets. It can never be done, but it’s wonderful to talk about. These things make for great panel discussions, and consumers obviously love it, which is why they’re willing to spend pretty good money to go to events like the Chardonnay Symposium, not only to sit there and listen and taste, but to raise their hands and ask questions. This intense interactivity goes to the heart of wine, which brings people together in thoughtful conversation.
One topic that Ontiveros introduced into the discussion, which I think is interesting, concerns the role of marketing. A lot of the conversation about clones is, How do they make the wine better, or more distinctive — what kinds of aromas and flavors and acidity does the clone bring? The fact is, just as often, or maybe even more often, as a clone is chosen for its qualitative aspects, so too is it chosen for its quantative aspects. There are certain clones that are good producers, and if a good Chardonnay can be made from a high-production clone, then the producer is going to use that clone. Vintners and growers are always looking to maximize their output; all their talk of quality is fine as far as it goes, but tends to obscure the hard facts of business.
The commercial implication made me remember something I wrote in one of my books: that for every descriptive word you can squeeze onto the front label, you can charge an additional $5 retail. For instance, if the label says “Dijon Clones”, ka-ching: Add ten bucks to the price. The consumer will think it’s a better wine than one that doesn’t have that designation, and will be willing to spend more for it.
Anyhow, we had eight awesomely good Chardonnays at our panel, underscoring once again why this varietal is California’s greatest white wine.
As I prepare to moderate the panel this week at The Chardonnay Symposium, I find myself thinking about this white wine, its phenomenal rise in popularity since the 1960s, and the fierce attack it’s come under, especially from the 1990s up to this day.
Forty years ago, there was very little Chardonnay planted in California, but today it’s grown virtually everywhere, from the Sierra Foothills, across the vast central Valley to the warmer inland valleys of the coast, all the way out to within sight of the Pacific Ocean. It is an easy plant to cultivate and a high producer, which is why wineries like to grow it. And, of course, Chardonnay is the #1 wine in America, meaning that its high production is almost automatically absorbed into the distribution system, and from there into the stomachs of wine drinkers.
Last year, there were 93,153 acres of Chardonnay planted in California, making it the most widely grown of any variety in the state, red or white; and those acres accounted for more than half of all white varieties (the runner-up, alas, being French Columbard; and I wonder how many varietally-labeled “Chardonnays” contain up to 24% of that inferior variety).
Where in the state is most of this Chardonnay grown? Fortunately, the majority is along the coast, in the counties of Napa (presumably mostly in the Carneros), Sonoma, , Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. A good deal also can be found in the Central Valley counties of San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Fresno and Merced, but again, the presumption must be that most of that goes into inexpensive California-appellated Chardonnays, many of them in jugs and boxes.
Of this latter group, of course a lot is plonk. The vines are made to yield very high tonnages of grapes; the resulting wines are thin, but have enough Chardonnay taste (peaches, pears) to get by, and of course the wineries then slather oak, or oak-like, substances upon them, to give the buttered toast and caramel aromas and flavors consumers think come from the grape.
It is often these wines that have been responsible for giving Chardonnay its bad reputation, but that is an irresponsible position to take. It’s as bad as if you defined white Burgundy only by the lesser, often mass-produced Chardonnays from the most basic Bourgogne, Macon-Villages and Chablis appellations.
To step up in quality in Burgundy you have to turn to the smaller prestige appellations: the Montrachets (Chassagne, Batard and Puligny), Corton-Charlemagne, Grand Cru Chablis, Meursault and the like. And even there, the producer is key, with names like Leflaive (Domaine and Olivier), Louis Jadot and Vincent Girardin often guaranteeing the highest Chardonnay character.
The situation in California is exactly the same. Ninety percent of California Chardonnays may well be boring or mediocre, or may pall after a sip or two, but that’s always the way it is in big appellations the world over. You have to head for the coast for the good stuff. In general, the further you get towards the Pacific, the more the wines turn steely, acidic and minerally–more “Chablisian” if you will. And the more the grapes come from the warmer inland valleys–the southern part of the Alexander Valley is a great example–the riper and more opulent the wines become. Vintage, too, plays a key role: Chilly vintages may favor the inland valleys, warmer ones the coast: but so much depends on the elevation, orientation and physical characteristics of the vineyard and diligence of viticulture. In general, you can think of the twenty or so miles from the beaches (or close to them) inland as the oscillating sweet spot for California Chardonnay, which despite the ABCers must be counted among the world’s greatest white wines.
It’s been so hot in California I don’t even want to think about red wines. So instead I’ll think about whites. Here are my 12 highest-scoring white wines of 2013 (so far):
Rochioli 2011 River Block Chardonnay
Lynmar 2011 Quail Hill Vineyard Chardonnay
Testarossa 2010 Rincon Vineyard Chardonnay
Lynmar 2011 Susanna’s Vineyard Chardonnay
Lynmar 2011 La Serenité Chardonnay
Gary Farrell 2010 Rochioli Vineyard Chardonnay
Paul Hobbs 2011 Chardonnay
Williams Selyem 2011 Olivet Lane Vineyard Chardonnay
Rochioli 2011 Sweetwater Chardonnay
Stonestreet 2011 Gravel Bench Chardonnay
Joseph Phelps 2011 Freestone Vineyards Chardonnay
Dutton Goldfield 2011 Walker Hill Vineyard Chardonnay
You’ll notice that all are Chardonnay. My highest-scoring white wine that wasn’t Chardonnay at least had Chardonnay blended into it, along with Roussanne and Viognier: That was the Sanguis 2011 “Incandescent.” My highest-scoring Sauvignon Blancs were Ehlers Estate 2012 (St. Helena), Ziata 2011 (Napa Valley), Brander 2011 Au Natural (Santa Ynez Valley), Robert Mondavi 2011 Reserve To Kalon (Oakville) and B Cellars 2012 (Napa Valley). Napa Valley really doesn’t get enough recognition for the quality of its Sauvignon Blancs. But why shouldn’t it? If it makes great Cabernet Sauvignon, it should make great Sauvignon Blanc which, after all, is one of Cabernet’s parents (along with Cabernet Franc).
You’ll notice, on my top Chardonnays, that all are from the Russian River Valley, with these exceptions: the Testarossa is Arroyo Grande Valley, the Stonestreet is Alexander Valley and the Joseph Phelps is Sonoma Coast. So does Russian River Valley make the best Chardonnay in California? Well, I have more scores, and higher scores, for RRV Chard than from other regions; but I also review far more RRV Chardonnays than from any other region, so the question is moot. What’s not in dispute is that RRV is a fabulous place for Chardonnay and even in the recent string of cool vintages a superior vineyard will shine.
I have encountered 2010 and 2011 Chardonnays that were leafy or moldy or vegetal, but not from top vineyards, where not only the viticulture is supreme, but the winery can afford the most scrutinized sorting regime, to weed out unfit berries. One word about that Stonestreet Gravel Bench Chardonnay: Yes it’s Alexander Valley but the vineyard is way the heck up in the Mayacamas. Some very famous wineries in the mountains prefer to put their Chardonnay at high elevations, sometimes even higher than their Cabernet vines. We don’t hear much about mountain Chardonnay but in general it shows the concentrated intensity of all mountain-grown fruit, red or white. These are Chardonnays whose underlying power easily accepts all those winemaker bells and whistles, from barrel fermentation and aging in new oak to malolactic fermentation and extended sur lie aging. Whenever I read some fancy pants critic complaining that California Chardonnay is too oaky etc. I always think “But they’re not tasting the good ones.” Because if they were, they wouldn’t say that.
P.S. Please offer a moment of grateful silence for the 19 fallen firefighter heroes in Arizona.
“Even as Americans chug down Chardonnay in record quantities, few buyers are dropping more than $50/bottle on the coast’s most popular white. Unless your name is Kistler, Ramey, Kongsgaard, or Peter Michael, there’s no market at over $50,” a popular online wine retail site declares. We’ll call these Chards the KRKPM group.
Well, a quick search of my Wine Enthusiast database found the following brands all of whom have at least one over $50 Chardonnay: Rochioli, Williams Selyem, Jarvis, Joseph Phelps, Del Dotto, Hanzell, Paul Hobbs, Lynmar, Stonestreet, Martinelli, La Crema, Ram’s Gate, Carte Blanche, Signorello, La Rochelle, Knights Bridge, Sanguis, Two Sisters, Merry Edwards and Migration. And I’m sure if I’d spent another three minutes poking around, I would have found even more.
So why would that online pub say “Unless” you’re a KRKPM nobody cares about you? Because it’s written for a type of wine snob who only buys the “big names.” This person either doesn’t know of the existence of any other wines, or, if he does, thinks that nothing can be as good as his KRKPMs. And of course, the situation is mirrored by other varieties for which Mr. Snob also has his “must buys”. (Click on “Napa Cabernets” on the aforementioned website and the first name that shows up is Abreu. If that’s not the snobbiest wine in California, I’d like to know what is.)
I’m not here to complain about the quality of the KRKPM Chardonnays. I just want to delve a little deeper into my ongoing exploration of the snob mentality that sees the world in such pigeon-holed blightedness that it honestly believes “there’s no market” for any wine not anointed with its imprimateur. Let me start with a question: Do the people who covet the KRKPM Chardonnays not also covet Williams Selyem, Rochioli and Merry Edwards? That’s hard for me to believe. But then, I don’t hang out in KRKPM circles. (I can’t afford to.) It is true that I occasionally run into these people, usually at events that attract a wealthy crowd. There, you do see them marching with zombie-like outstretched arms to the Kosta Browne table (and by the way, how come the online pub didn’t include Kosta Browne on their Chardonnay short list?), passing right by perfectly fine Chardonnays that don’t happen to have been raised to sainthood by the Popes of point score perfection. It always makes me sad, and a little mad.
I headlined this post “Dog Whistle Wines” because the term dog whistle, when used metaphorically (and usually politically), refers to “coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.) In politics, to use one example, “family values” is a dog whistle term, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.
In the case of the online wine pub, the KRKPM brands mean nothing to the general population, but to the “subgroup” who must have only the approved wines of the world, they mean something far different. The dog whistle message here is that the online pub is their kind of retailer–one of us, so to speak, not them, “them” being the unwashed, unsophisticated booboisie who think that La Crema (gasp!) is great Chardonnay. * This need for exclusivity separating them from the common man is one way that snobs are different from you and me (and this certainly is not a blanket indictment of the rich, per se, but of an attitude one occasionally finds among them).
I like to think that with the coming of age of a younger generation in this new millennium, we in America are moving away from this crass fixation on dog whistle wines, and I think we are. I’ve spent a great part of my career trying to get people to break their addiction to a handful of “cult” wines, but sometimes it’s like Sisyphus rolling that rock up a very steep hill because it’s trying to change human nature, and human nature changes very slowly, if at all. (And the older I get the less I think it ever changes.) Just when you think American consumers might be making progress, as an older generation of dog whistle wine-slaves dies off, here comes China, which seems to be the new market for dog whistle wines. Sigh.
* I’d like to see the Ayatollahs of cult wines taste blind a La Crema 9 Barrel Chardonnay against any of the KRKPMs.
This article about how well Gallo is doing in the super-premium tier ($15 and above) squares well with the chatter at the recent Napa Valley wine auction concerning the rather sudden turnaround in the wine business. From misery to marvahlous was the song on everyone’s lips, cults and commoners alike, leading me to believe that, while the general U.S. economy may still be tottery, wine has become a leading indicator of recovery.
(Until yesterday I might have said wine has become the canary in the coal mine of recovery, but Chuck reminded me that that metaphor has a rather unfortunate implication.)
Gallo is selling a lot of MacMurray Ranch, Louis M. Martini, Frei Brothers and Ghost Pines, all of which indeed do offer sound wines reasonably priced. So I thought I’d dig through the Wine Enthusiast database and see what some of my best-reviewed wines have been over the last year in the $11-$20 category.
Exactly 50 scored 90 points or above. Several brands appear more than once: Cameron Hughes, Minassian-Young, Tangent, Rodney Strong, Courtney Benham, Zaca Mesa. These may be described as a deep bench of talent. Of course, some of them also produce much more expensive wines (Zaca Mesa’s Black Bear Block Syrah, for example, is $60 retail), but I like it when a winery can do more than one thing well.
Other names on my list appear only once, but that was over the past year. If you go back further, they appear with greater frequency. Longboard, Sebastiani, Huntington, Tercero, Claiborne & Churchill, Firestone, Kendall-Jackson,Vina Robles, Geyser Peak–we’re lucky to have them (or the consumer is). It is brands like these (and again, some of them produce super-ultra-premium wines) that make me put on my populist hat and be happy that someone is giving consumers wine they can afford.
On the other hand, here are two very good but expensive Chardonnays I’ve enjoyed lately. Both are from the Russian River Valley, and both are 2011: Rochioli River Block ($60) and Lynmar Quail Hill ($55). It never fails to amaze me how River Block–which as its name implies is on a bank above the Russian River, and whose soil consequently is pure, crumbly sand and gravel–can produce, not just Chardonnays of such exquisite poise, but Pinot Noir. In theory, it should not do so; and Tom Rochioli himself told me he doesn’t consider River Block his best. But don’t tell that to the wines! It just shows to go that, once again, the conventional wisdom isn’t always right. Or maybe all it shows is that great viticulture can make up for deficiencies in the soil. Or both.