I wrote a post recently, “Aromatic whites, including Albarino, come of age,” which was sort of a general musing on the new popularity of these wines, a development I fully support because they can be lovely. Among the comments my post got was this one, which I’m reproducing in full because I want to make several points:
Hi there. I recently put together a blind tasting that largely focused on white spanish varietals: verdejo, viura/macaebo, and albarino. I also poured what I thought could be some imposters (e.g. pinot grigio). I generally found that the spanish varietals were quite difficult to tell apart…from my research, the albarino is typically represented by the combination of more intense aromatics (especially peach and stone fruit) and having the most bracing acidity – compared to verdejo and viura macabeo.
From the limited selection of wines I showed…this premise seemed to hold true. HOWEVER, all the wines did seem VERY similar to me…I think it was difficult to tell the difference between them. Of course, knowing what specific qualities differentiate the grape varieties would be helpful, lol!
Soo…..I’d love to know your thoughts! Do you think my assessment of albarino is correct? If not, what might I be missing? I’d really like to understand more of these great spanish whites.
My first reaction was, My goodness, what is it about us that makes us work so hard to find the slightest minute differences between wines? I replied,
I agree that these whites all all very similar. Perhaps you’re trying too hard to tell them apart. It’s a distinction without a difference.
I’ve always thought there’s a strain of behavior in our wine crowd that tries to over-sciencize the art and pleasure of wine tasting. We go about it like laboratory technicians, or MBAs studying the tax code, instead of people who simply love wine, and love talking about it. Personally, I never got too deep into that kind of thing. When I was starting out, I’d hear debates between people with a lot more experience than I had about whether that aroma was peach pit or apricot pit, and I’d think, “Jeez, is this the club I’m trying to join?” Another version of the debate was whether or not the wine was “lightstruck.” It seemed so pointless to me, because one person was going to stick with what he found, the other person would stick with what he found, they’d never agree, they were talking past each other, and it was all unprovable anyway. So why even bother to have the debate?
I’m not saying we should dumb down our wine tasting conversations. But I do think beginners, especially, over-sciencize it. They think that Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine and Famous Wine Critics sit around and detect these distinctions with pinpoint accuracy, and so they should try to do it, too. The fact is, as one gets more experienced as a taster, one loses interest in what kind of stone fruit the wine smells like, or exactly which berry shows up in the middle palate. Instead one begins to think and write in terms of more abstract elements, such as structure, grace, elegance, harmony, precision, focus and balance–or the lack thereof. These are very easy to discern, if you understand what they are. (And blind tasting is the best way to do it.) We might not all be able to agree on precise aromas and flavors, but, in general, experienced tasters will agree on these more sublime qualities.
Albarino is one of those grape varieties nobody in California thought too much of, like Pinot Gris and Gruner Veltliner, until comparatively recently.
Why should they have? California vintners fell into two categories in the modern era: those who wanted to sell commodity wines to lots of average consumers, and those who wanted to create prestige brands along the lines of Bordeaux chateaux or Burgundy domains. Either way, that meant producing those old familiar varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. If variety for variety’s sake was desired, the vintner could always throw in a little Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel or something Rhônish.
But something in the California psyche started shifting around the year 2000. I haven’t read much about what instigated this shift, which saw the beginnings of the emergence of what are usually called aromatic whites. There had long been plantings of Riesling and Gewurztraminer in California, but suddenly, one started hearing about Pinot Gris/Grigio, Viognier, Albarino, Gruner, Torrontes and others. Whaf the wines had in common were low to moderate alcohol, keen acidity, bright floral, citrus or green notes and, perhaps most importantly, little or no oak influence to mask the fruit.
What instigated this shift is hard to tell. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Grape growers are very conservative when it comes to planting; they’re not going to stick anything in the ground they don’t think they can sell. So it didn’t come from the growers. But growers are sensitive to signs around them, and the more acute of them, who have their fingers in the wind all the time to detect changing consumer preferences, know what’s happening before most of the rest of us. Maybe they have a good network of restaurateurs and distributors to keep them abreast of what’s happening out there. Maybe they watch the critics, to see what new variety is being touted. Maybe the appeal for fresh, vibrant white wines really did start among consumers, and then traveled from the ground up. Who knows?
At any rate, it wasn’t until 2003 that I reviewed my first Albarino for Wine Enthusiast, a late date. It was a 2002 from the Lodi winery, Bokisch. It was pretty good; I scored it 88 points and, at $16 in price, it was worthy of an Editor’s Choice special designation. But I can’t say it knocked my sox off.
The first 90 point Albarino I reviewed was the 2004 Havens. It represented a big step above the Bokisch, in terms of utter dryness, light alcohol and a flintiness that was like a lick of cold stone. It put the idea in my mind that Carneros, and cool climates in general, were what Albarino likes.
Since then, the 90 point or higher Albarinos haven’t exactly flooded my doorstep, but they are coming in with greater frequency. Three producers now stand out as the most dependable: Marimar Torres, Longoria and Tangent. Each takes a different approach, but what all have in common is a cool growing region: respectively, the Green Valley of the Russian River, the Santa Ynez Valley and the Edna Valley. I’ve also been impressed lately by Kenneth Volk’s 2011 Albarino from the Santa Maria Valley, a little more-full-bodied than the others, but still Albarino-ey.
This new penchant among consumers for light, aromatic white wines is a very good thing, and I suspect it’s being driven by younger wine drinkers. It takes a certain amount of courage for a diner to request a wine type he’s unfamiliar with and may not even be able to pronounce, even if the sommelier recommends it. My friends who are floor staff confirm that it is indeed younger people who are drinking these aromatic whites, including Albarino, which pairs so well with today’s fresh, ethnic, pan-Asian fare and tapas-style small plates.
Acreage of Albarino is up sharply, although it’s still miniscule compared to other white varieties: a total of 176 acres in 2011. But 72 acres of that were non-bearing, meaning they’d been planted in 2009 or 2010; and I suspect that when the 2012 Grape Acreage Report comes out, we’ll see even higher numbers. Critics have long lamented that Americans are not drinking adventurously, creatively and experimentally. But I think that trope can now be laid to rest.
One of the biggest challenges to the wine critic is determining if a wine is ageable and, if you think it is, then how long to recommend that your readers age it.
This is irrelevant for most wines, but for that small handful of wines that do indeed improve with age, it’s perhaps the single most important piece of information the critic can convey. After all, when you look at the prices people pay for some of these wines, they deserve to know if their bottle is drinkable now or will improve in the cellar.
If the critic tastes openly, it makes the task a lot easier. You’re at Chateau Figeac tasting the 2009? It’s tight and tannic and oaky, but then, it is Figeac. Tell your readers to cellar it. That’s a no-brainer.
If you’re tasting blind, it’s a different story. Lots of wines are tight, tannic and oaky, but they can’t all be ageable. So there’s got to be something else the critic looks for. In the absence of external information (you don’t know the name of the winery, so you don’t know if the wine has a history of aging), you have to look for other cues. What are they?
That’s why I call it “one of the biggest challenges,” because it’s really hard to make this determination.
You can start by a process of elimination. Think of all the reasons why the wine couldn’t possibly improve in the cellar. It may be too thin, or out of whack in acidity, too obviously hot in alcohol, or flawed in some other general way. This is the easy part. It’s when you’re gotten your flight down to the dense, balanced, tannic young wines that the difficulties mount.
It used to be said (and some people may still believe it) that a wine that’s delicious on release isn’t ageable. People thought that an ageable wine had to be tough and resistant in youth. That may have been true a long time ago, but it isn’t true anymore. Many California Cabernet Sauvignons, in fact most, that age well are super-good on release, and the same is true of many classified growth Bordeaux that I have occasion to sample every year. I was reminded of this fact when I read, in Benjamin Lewin’s Claret & Cabs, the quote from Eric d’Aramon, concerning his father-in-law, the owner of Figeac. “When I did my first tasting [with him]…every cuve that he selected for the grand vin, I selected for the second wine, and vice versa.” This naturally shocked Eric, “but [then] he explained to me, ‘you have been selecting the vats for drinking now, I am selecting them for future potential.’”
Eric, in other words, thought less of the harder, more austere batches than he did of the lusher, more fruit-forward batches. This is perfectly understandable, but it leads back to the conundrum of how to tell the difference between a hard, austere wine that will improve with age and one that won’t.
Here’s how I do it. Since I don’t know the identity of the wine while I’m reviewing it, I’ll work up some preliminary thoughts about it [flavors, structure, balance, length and so on], and also assign it a score. Those things are invariant. Then, when the bottle comes out of the bag, I work on my final review, before sending it electronically to Wine Enthusiast. So how I do decide whether or not to give a wine a “Cellar Selection” designation? Well, it’s not necessarily because I’m familiar with the aging histories of many of these wines. For example, I’ve recently given Cellar Selections to Cabernets from Hunnicutt, V. Sattui, Bjorn, Venge, Redmon and B Cellars, and I’ve never had any older wines from any of them. I did it because the wines seemed to me to possess all the stuffing and equilibrium to go the distance–and they are all from Napa Valley. On the other hand, I’ve also given Cellar Selection recommendations for the likes of Ridge Montebello, Corison and Beaulieu Private Reserve in Cabernets, and some of Williams Selyem’s single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, all of which are wines I’m familiar with as they age. With those, I feel like I’m on surer footing than with wines Ive never tasted old. But I wouldn’t give a Cellar Selection unless I was sure in my own mind that the wine would age well, which is why, for example, I gave a good score to Raymond’s 2009 District Collection Cabernet, and suggested it could do interesting things in eight years, but ultimately didn’t give it a Cellar Selection. I just wasn’t sure enough to go there.
Lord knows I’m a big defender of California Cabernet Sauvignon against the bashers who say it all tastes like a candy bar, but I will admit to occasionally having my own moments of despair.
It happens when I set up a flight of 10 or 12 Cabs to review. Normally, I try to segregate them by appellation–all Napa Valley, for instance. But it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, lately I’ve been concentrating on the wines of Paso Robles, including Cabernet and Bordeaux red blends. It’s seemed to me that the wines have been getting better, for a variety of reasons. One way to check that out is to taste Paso Cabs against Napa Cabs, which are the gold standard, to see if they have anything to be ashamed of.
As far as I can tell, few other reviewers do it that way. They’ll go to Paso Robles and taste, or they’ll receive the wines at home, and then taste them openly–which invites preconceived notions about Paso Robles. And we all have them, don’t we? It’s too hot, etc. etc. Yes, it is hot, but no more so than Calistoga (I can send you the temperature statistics if you want), and there are areas in Paso (particularly in the west and south) that are cooler than, say, the Estrella flats along 46E. So its only fair to take ambitious Paso Cabs and set them next to the best of Napa and see what’s up.
I can see some eyebrows rising high in scandalized incredulity. What? Taste Paso Robles Cabernets next to great Napa Cabernet? Yes; why not? It’s not against the law. And I’ll tell you that some of these Paso Cabs stand up remarkably well.
But what I was writing about was my moments of despair. Let me explain. If you do a search on my wine reviews using the words “candy,” “candied,” “sugary sweet,” “jammy,” you’ll get an awful lot of hits, and not just for Cabernet. Syrah, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, there really is a lot of treacly stuff out there, the kind that drives the Europeans mad. Tasting through a flight of such wines can start to be tedious, so much so that, on occasion, I start thinking to myself, “Maybe Terry Theise has a point. Maybe even Raj Parr has a point.”
There used to be a saying, “Where you stand depends on where you sit,” which makes no sense at all literally. It means that the way you see and experience things depends on your perspective. Now, having a perspective is complicated business. You may have inherited a perspective from the way you were raised. You may have developed a new perspective through education. The Europeans, who grew up with wines in the 13%-14% range, naturally recoil from a 15.5% L’Aventure Cabernet. To them, it tastes utterly bizarre, not like wine at all.
I didn’t grow up with a European perspective. When it came to wine, I had no perspective, as we didn’t drink it in my parents’ home. My perspective concerning wine developed after I moved to California, and fell in with other amateurs who liked California wine quite a bit. In that environment, I developed an affection for our style, which may be riper and sweeter than it was 30 years ago, but not all that much. California wine (especially red) has always been about fruit.
So when I start thinking that there’s an awful lot of candied sameness out there, it forces me to dive deeper to discern which wines are balanced with candied sweetness and which ones aren’t. For there is such a thing as a Cabernet that’s sweet and jammy and chocolatey, yet maintains perfect balance. To give just one example, the Paul Hobbs 2009 Beckstoffer To Kalon, which clocks in at a hefty 15.2% alcohol, and which I gave 96 points. That wine has balance, despite the glyceriney, fat unctuousness. I sometimes think the people who bash this style throw the baby out with the bathwater. They dismiss all California wines of this style without realizing or understanding that there are grand wines made in all styles.
Having said that, yes, my Europhile friends, there are a lot of candy bar wines in California.
Testarossa, Siduri, Williams Selyem, Merry Edwards, Failla, Bonaccorsi, La Follette, De Loach, Bjornstad, MacPhail–what do they (and many other California wineries) have in common?
Yes, they’re all Pinot Noir houses (in addition to whatever else they make), but they also play the interesting game of buying Pinot Noir fruit from multiple vineyards and bottling them with vineyard designations. For the wine taster, this presents unique opportunities, as well as challenges.
I suppose the allure of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti was such that it was only to be expected serious Pinot winemakers would want to try their hands at expressing the terroir of different vineyards. (I don’t mean wineries who own estate vineyards and produce different designations, like Lynmar, Donum, Rochioli or Talley, I mean wineries that buy their fruit. And yes, I know that some of them, like Williams Selyem, own their own vineyards.)
I don’t know who was first to play the multiple vineyard game in California. Williams Selyem certainly was an early adapter. Testarossa seems to have followed their model in the 1990s. The entrepreneurial aspect of the template is perhaps most perfectly expressed by Siduri. But over the last 2-3 years, more and more wineries are getting into the act.
The opportunity for the taster in these cases is twofold: (1) to see if you can detect the winemaker’s signature across multiple terroirs, and (2) to see if you can detect the vineyard’s terroir across multiple winemakers. This latter opportunity is true only of those vineyards large enough to sell fruit to multiple winemakers; among them would be Bien Nacido (among the largest) and smaller ones like Rosella’s, Precious Mountain, Olivet Lane and Fiddlestix. This isn’t as easy as it seems, though, because winemaker techniques can differ widely (some pick earlier than others) and because of micro-terroir differences in vineyard rows and blocks.
There also is the challenge of precisely how best to taste the Pinot Noirs of these multiple producers when they all arrive in one box. There is no one best way of tasting; each approach has its pros and cons. When Bob Cabral sends me 15 vineyard-designated Pinots, should I taste them in a single flight, or should I segregate them out by appellation and taste them against other Pinot Noirs from those appellations? I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule for this. My own preference is to taste them all together–to take a long, leisurely swim in the essence of Williams Selyem, as it were–but I can see where an argument could be made to taste Russian River against Russian River, Sonoma Coast against Sonoma Coast, and so on. It also would be instructive to do flights from the same vineyard from multiple producers, although tactically, this is more difficult for me to set up, as wines from the same vintage may arrive at widely different times across a calendar year or even two, depending on the winery’s release schedule.
I will say that tasting these multiple Pinots from the same producer is one of my most enjoyable tasks. Not every wine in the world is bursting with joy. Some, maybe most, are made grindingly, to pay the bills and fill the bellies of the masses. But when a California producer makes a range of Pinots from different vineyards, it’s because he wants to and loves to and can. This is the Happy Hunting Ground for the intrepid Pinot producer, and with each pop of the cork, I get to share in his joy.
Incidentally, it’s worth noting that few wineries play the multiple Cabernet game. Duckhorn and Nickel & Nickel do, Paul Hobbs a little, Chimney Rock’s getting into it as is a new player, PerryMoore, and there are others I could mention. But the multiple Cabernet thing is nowhere near as advanced as the multiple Pinot thing. I’m not sure why that is, but I don’t think it’s because “Pinot shows terroir more transparently than Cabernet Sauvignon,” which is the usual trope (and one moreover I’m not convinced of, not to end a sentence with a preposition). I think it has more to do with the availability of good Pinot fruit versus good Cabernet fruit. While there’s more than twice as much Cab planted than Pinot, there’s more Pinot going in by a long shot, which increases the availability of fruit. Great Cabernet for sale is restricted pretty much to some well-known Napa Valley vineyards, like Beckstoffer To Kalon and Stagecoach.
People who are seriously getting into wine–who’ve crossed over from being “mere” wine likers to wanting to know more about what they’re drinking–often start by becoming interested in technical aspects. What’s the residual sugar? How much new oak? How many cases were produced? What clones did you use? Winery representatives who pour at public events or who work in tasting rooms are used to these questions. I often feel sorry for them because they have to say things like “It’s a mix of Clone 667 and Pommard” about 400 times a day.
I went through this technical phase in the 1990s. I would ask the kinds of questions I thought a wine journalist should ask. How many buds per spur? What’s the rootstock? Do you pump over or punch down? But somehow my questions bored me, and so for the most part did the answers. I was thinking about wine rather than feeling it, and over-thinking it, at that, which was a barrier to understanding the essence of wine, which is: Not numbers, but heart, life, soul, essence.
At some point, I decided to jettison that part of me. It wasn’t a conscious decision, like waking up one day and thinking “I’ll never ask a technical question again.” And it isn’t that I no longer ask technical questions; I do, when there’s a reason to. I simply found myself asking less about technique and more about the winemaker’s motives, perspectives, aspirations and understanding. Not “Is the wine fined or filtered” but What is the winemaker trying to do? What’s her vision, her ideal, her dream? Why that, and not something else? How has she evolved over the years? How does she reconcile the natural tension between the commercial aspects of her job and the artistic ones? How does she perceive her wine as an expression of its terroir? These are not technical questions; they are inquiries into the winemaker’s thought processes and practices, and their answers shed more light, I think, on why the wine is the way it is than any laboratory analysis. Besides, I think my readers, who always are foremost in my mind, would rather read about these things, and not numbers.
Writers obsessed with technique suffer from “paralysis by analysis,” which Wikipedia defines as “over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation, or citing sources, so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome.” It also is the title of a blog Terry Theise wrote last week in the Huffington Post. While I’ve had my differences with Terry, primarily over his disdain for California wines, here he’s right on when he says “I’ve reached a place in my drinking career where I find…analytical stats otiose.” He quotes a German winemaker who once told him, “You don’t need these [numbers] anymore, Terry. Analyses are for beginners.”
Now, many wine drinkers are beginners, of course, as Terry rightly points out, and he observes that it would be “peevish of me to deny them the understanding they seek.” Yet he lets us know that “technical minutiae” are not what he wants to write about, nor are they the things wine lovers ought to obsess over. “If you’re stuck in the ‘how,’” Terry writes, with epigrammatic lucidity, “you’ll have a rough time finding your way to the ‘what.’”
What is the “what”? It is what the wine really is: its meaning in this world. That meaning need not be grandiose; it can be ordinary. Whatever it is, it can be written about–and it can be inferred by others. The “what” is, of course, what every wine writer ultimately wants to capture. It also is what true wine connoisseurs seek, yet it will never be obtained by statistics. Many people who taste wine at public events and in tasting rooms seem insecure, and asking a technical question is a form of compensation for their fear of appearing ignorant–it makes them look like they know what they’re talking about (to themselves, to the pourer and, often, to the others in their group). (By the way, writers can feel insecure, too, especially when talking with winemakers.) But really, technical information doesn’t advance the amateur’s understanding of wine. If anything, it impedes it–paralysis by analysis.