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What is “nobility” in wine?

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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.


What I’m drinking this winter

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We’re in the middle of winter now, and even though the rest of the country laughs at Californians when we complain about 40 degrees, to us, it feels really cold. When I have my first drink of the day, around 5 p.m., I might start with a sip of white wine, just to get myself comfortable. But these chilly nights call for red.

Red wine is warming, to the blood, the mind, the soul. There’s something about it that’s like a soft blanket you wrap yourself in that keeps you cozy. I suppose the relatively higher alcohol of red wine also helps with this warming process. I don’t like to put the heat on, even when my home is chilly, so I’ll often be wearing a sweatshirt and even a woolen cap to keep myself warm. But I always notice, after a glass or two of red wine, that my body temperature rises enough that I can take off the sweatshirt and cap and feel comfortable, even though the actual room temperature hasn’t changed. I like that feeling. It’s as though red wine boosts my body’s ability to balance itself to external conditions.

I love a good Pinot Noir, but on these really cold nights I want something with more body. Zinfandel is a full-bodied wine, but I find that even a good one palls on me after a glass. It’s too strong, too spicy, too briary, often overripe and hot. Even the best Zin doesn’t contain mysteries, which is what makes me want a second or third glass of wine–it contains subtleties that require repeated examination. I might dwell on a Merlot for a few glasses, but it would have to be a very good one: La Jota, Shafer, Rutherford Hill, Turnbull, Hunnicutt, all from Napa Valley. A new Napa winery that’s impressed me is Crosby Roamann; they have a Merlot from Oak Knoll that’s really good. There’s not much Merlot out there in California to challenge Napa Valley, although I recently enjoyed a Happy Canyon Vineyard 2007 “Barrack Brand” Merlot. That new Happy Canyon AVA is one to watch.

Syrah, for me, often has the same limitation as Zinfandel. That first sip can be deliriously delicious. But does it keep you coming back for more? A few do. Syrah, though, is one variety that Napa Valley doesn’t dominate. Since winter began, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Syrahs from Donelan (Cuvee Keltie), MacLaren (Judge Family Vineyard) and Del Dotto (Cinghiale Vineyard), all from Sonoma County. But it’s Santa Barbara County Syrah that’s really surprised me. Among the best are Andrew Murray, Brander, Rusack, Whitcraft, Larner, Margerum and La Fenetre. What is it about Santa Barbara that’s so hospitable to Syrah? Food for thought.

Still, when all is said and done, on those cold nights when I want to snuggle in with a red wine, it’s invariably Cabernet Sauvignon. It has the rich body I want, also the intrigue and complexity that make it so interesting as it breathes and changes. I suppose this is why they call Cabernet a “noble” variety, a word that’s hard to define, except to imply that it has layers you keep discovering, one by one, like the experience of great music or literature or painting.

Here are some great Cabs I’ve been drinking this winter: Goldschmidt, World’s End, Venge, Trefethen, Turnbull, B Cellars, Patland, PerryMoore, Hunnicutt, V. Sattui, Arger-Martucci, Altvs [the “v” is not a typo, it’s the way Bill Foley wants it), Antonio Patric, Tudal and Napa Angel by Montes. These are all from Napa Valley and its various sub-appellations, and most of them are single vineyard wines. Two vineyards show up repeatedly: Stagecoach and Beckstoffer To Kalon. When people say great wine is made in the vineyard, they’re talking about wines like these.


Syrah vs. Cabernet: no comparison

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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!


Pork ribs, Napa’s eastern mountains and a top Syrah

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Dinner last Saturday with Maxine and Keith featured barbecued pork ribs for the main course. Spicy, sweet, fatty, smoky, meaty and succulent. What to drink them with?

Maxine thought a white, but I vetoed that. I’m sure there’s a white wine somewhere in the world to pair with pork ribs (maybe an oaky Grenache Blanc or even Sauternes?), but all we had at the time was Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wine, and I didn’t think any of those would work. I had earlier tasted some miscellaneous reds, so we had a pretty good selection to try out: a delicious Merriam 2008 Windacre Merlot, a fine Courtney Benham 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap, Krutz 2009 Krupp Vineyard Malbec, a spicy Kenwood 2010 Jack London Zinfandel, Krutz 2009 Stagecoach Vineyard Syrah, and another Merriam Windacre, this time the 2008 Cabernet Franc.

Which wine do you think paired best?

First, I should explain that the side dishes were Israeli cous cous with black beans, grilled zucchini squash and Brentwood butter and sugar corn grilled in the husk, so sweet it needed neither seasoning nor butter. But grillmeister Keith’s ribs dominated the room like Bill Clinton working a crowd.

I thought, intellectually, that the contenders were the Merriam Cab Franc and the Krutz Syrah. The Cab Franc struck me for its spiciness, and the way the fusion of cherries and oak had a jammy, brown sugary sweetness that would echo the sweet flavors of the ribs. As for the Syrah, well, it was so outstanding on its own, full-bodied and layered, and so smoky-sweet that it seemed like a no-brainer. When the actual taste test went down, the Merriam Cab Franc was okay, but  the Krutz Syrah beat it by a mile. A brilliant pairing, really, in which the wine brought out the intensity of the ribs, and the ribs brought out the sweet depth of the wine, which had the volume to stand up to–but not be dominated by–the ribs’ fatty richness.

This Stagecoach Vineyard has entered my consciousness over the last several years as one of the most noteworthy in Napa Valley, which is to say in all of California. I’d long known the name from the many wineries that vineyard-designate it, but only visited the vineyard for the first time two years ago, when Dr. Jan Krupp, of the owning Krupp family, toured me for an article I was researching on the Atlas Peak appellation. I learned that the vineyard necessarily qualifies only for a Napa Valley AVA because just 30% of it is within the Atlas Peak boundary. The rest of it spills over a kind of canyon that leads to Pritchard Hill, on which another 30% lies. At that time, I had only an imprecise vision of Pritchard Hill (the October 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast will have my big story on it) and the quality of its wines, but with my focus on it since last Spring, I’ve now realized what great real estate Pritchard Hill is, especially for Bordeaux varieties and Syrah.

There are differences between Atlas Peak, Pritchard Hill and the land inbetween, but the fundamentals still apply: mountain intensity, purity of focus, intense minerality from the rocks. Here’s something I hadn’t known: Dr. Krupp told me it in 2010, so I don’t know if it’s still true today, but “Atlas Peak has more vineyard acreage than all other Napa Valley mountain AVAs combined.”

The fact that Stagecoach qualifies “only” for the basic Napa Valley AVA is another proof that what counts in California is not the legal appellation on the label, but the vineyard name and, behind that, the quality of the viticulture and enology practiced by the producer. Years ago, I wrote an article on California’s greatest vineyards. Stagecoach wasn’t in it. Were I to write that article today, it certainly would be (and some of the vineyards I included would come off!). Cabernet is Stagecoach’s forté, as evidenced by wineries inlcluding Paul Hobbs, Krutz, Conn Creek, Sequoia Grove, Charles Creek, Krupp, Palmeri and Miner, but as we have seen Syrah can be spectacular. If all Syrah were that good, Syrah would have an honored place in the pantheon of California varietal wines, a place it does not current enjoy.


Further musings on Syrah/Rhone-style wines

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Considering that Rhone-style wines from California are such a hard sell, it’s strange that Rhone Valley wines–real ones, from France–“celebrated record levels of growth in the U.S.,” according to Inter Rhone, a marketing group, as reported here on Yahoo Finance.

The brief report doesn’t specify which appellations in the vast Rhone Valley so many Americans are buying, except it adds, almost as a side note, that “wines in the $10-$20 segment” are popular, which leads me to believe they’re from the Cotes du Rhone, (including Villages), Luberon, Vacqueyras, perhaps Crozes Hermitages and places like that, rather than the higher quality and pricier Gigondas, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Saint-Joseph and Hermitage.

Well, nothing unusual about that. More Americans buy cheaper wines from the Central Valley than cult Napa Valley Cabernets.

But why are they opting for Rhone Valley wines while spurning California Rhone-style wines? That’s the question.

That Syrah and its sisters are hard sells in this country is largely anecdotal, but the anecdotes are frequent and convincing. Planted acreage of Syrah in California actually fell between 2009-2011, as it did for Grenache. (Mourvedre held its own in those years.) This was, I suspect, because growers budded their Syrah and Grenache over to more sellable varieties, such as–climate permitting–Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon.

The answer is complex, but it can be boiled down to two factors: the continuing appeal of French wines to American wine consumers who may not have particularly sophisticated palates, but know what they like; and the sad fact that so many California Rhone-style wines just aren’t very good.

The appeal of French wines is longstanding and understandable. When you put it together with a price between $10-$20, you’ve got a marketing green light. The lighter alcohol of French wines also appeals to many supermarket buyers (which is where most of these wines are sold), who are looking for a medium-bodied, dry red wine to drink with roasted chicken, a backyard barbecue of steak and burgers, or even Mexican food.

California Rhone-style wines on the other hand are often heavy-handed, clumsily sweet and sometimes even vegetal (given the difficulties of ripening Mourvedre and Grenache). Since January, 2011, I’ve tasted about 100 of what could be called “Cotes-du-Rhone”-style bottlings, and gave 90 points or higher only to ten (my highest score was a Sanguis 2008 “Endangered Species,” but then, it costs $70 retail). More typical was a Paso Robles blend, which I won’t name, that was “soft, sweet and unripe.” I scored it 81 points.

There are far more varietal Syrahs bottled than Rhone-style blends, which means far more high-scoring Syrahs, such as almost anything from Qupe, Failla and Donelan. But these are destination wines: pricy, beyond the means of the average American, and even at its absolute best, California Syrah is, well, a peculiar wine. It’s full-bodied, but not as much so as Cabernet Sauvignon; velvety and soft, but so is Merlot, which has better structure; and rich in fruit (but what well-made California wine isn’t?). Dramatic, yes, even stunning, but a one-off, like a men’s velvet smoking jacket or (to drag in a culinary metaphor), a rich soufflé with shaved truffle: not something you wear or eat every day.

Hooray for the Rhone Valley people, I say, for making good wines at an affordable price. I used to drink a lot of Cotes-du-Rhone myself, back in the day (not to mention the Languedoc), and if I didn’t have this gig, I’d probably still be drinking it.


Remembering a Rhône event, 22 years ago today

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There was so much hope in the air on May 16-17, 1990, exactly 22 years ago, at the International Colloquium on Rhône Varietals, which I was privileged to cover as my first major feature story when I became a professional wine writer.

Syrah and its fellow Rhône grapes and wines, Mourvedre and Grenache, weren’t widely planted in California, and certainly weren’t known by a large segment of the wine-drinking community. But experts understood the importance of those grapes in the Rhône Valley, and adherents were tinkering with them right here in California, and up into Washington State.

The three-day conference, which was held at Meadowood, in the Napa Valley, was organized by Richard Keehn, then proprietor of McDowell Valley Vineyards, which at the time was an important outpost of Rhône-style wines; Bruce Neyers, the then president of Joseph Phelps Vineyards, and, on the French side, Gerard Pierrefeu, president of the Comité Interprofessionel des Vins, and a high ranking member of the A.O.C. organization.

I was contributing short articles at that time to another wine magazine, when the phone rang one day. It was my editor. He had an emergency. The writer who had been assigned to go to the conference had fallen ill; my editor wanted to know if I could substitute in his place. When is it? I asked. Tomorrow. Well, I knew I could do a good job and that if I did, it would advance me in the esteem of my editor and publisher. So I went, and I did a good job.

The first thing a writer should do, on going to something like that conference, is sniff the air. I don’t mean literally, I mean that metaphorically. Take the pulse of the occasion; feel it out. Is there tension? Follow it. Tension means conflict, which translates to good, strong writing–if you can capture that lightning in a can.

And I felt plenty of tension. This was 1990, mind you. If I can characterize the psychology on both sides–the Californians and the French–it was this: the Californians wanted to learn (steal) as much as they could from the French, about everything from rootstocks and weed control to pruning and maceration times. The French? They felt they had nothing whatsoever to learn from the upstart Californians–rien! But they had been hearing things across the pond, rumors that these Californians were rich, ambitious, and coming on strong–and that they had great weather all the time. That was scary. After all, it hadn’t been that long since the Paris Tasting had scandalized tout France. So the French came over to see what the heck was going on.

They were a haughty, supercilious lot, those Frenchmen. I think they came prepared to do war. Pierrefeu later wrote that he had expected “hostile behavior” to ensue; that’s how heated was the potential for explosion.

Mercifully, no explosions occurred. People in general behaved themselves quite well. The point of all this is, however, a sad one. Expectations among the Californians (Randall Grahm, Bob Lindquist, Craig Williams, Kevin Hamel, John Buechsenstein, Fred and Matt Cline, John MacReady and Lou Preston) were enormous. These were men who had staked their claims, not on Cabernet Sauvignon, but on Syrah as the red wine of the future. (Well, Craig was also making top Cabernets at Phelps, so I should exclude him from that generalization.) They were as sure as sure can be that Syrah (and maybe even Chateauneuf-style blends) was the Next Big Thing. It was their excitement I sniffed in the air alongside the hauteur of the French. I tried to capture that sensation in my article.

We all know what happened. Syrah was not the Next Big Thing. In fact, some of the wineries represented at Meadowood began a decline when Syrah tanked, or failed to take off. They simply put their money on the wrong horse.

Still, I look at the International Colloquium on Rhône Varietals as a milestone in the history of California wine. It wasn’t as dramatic as The French Paradox episode on Sixty Minutes, or as impactful as the phylloxera epidemic (both of those events also occurred in the 1990s). But symbolically, it placed California on an equal footing with some of the greatest names in French wine, and it did so on a California stage. The French, despite themselves, by their very presence acknowledged that they had to treat the Californians as equals.


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