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Malbec in California? Mixed bag, emerging story

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I reviewed a very nice wine from Trefethen, the 2010 Dragon’s Tooth, a blend of 58% Malbec, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Petit Verdot. (My full review and score will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast.)

In the paperwork accompanying the wine, Janet Trefethen had written of the winery’s “tinkering with Malbec for the past 12 years” and added, “Clearly, we are not alone in our interest in Malbec as Napa Valley plantings have tripled since the year 2000.”

That sent me to do my own research in the latest Grape Acreage Report, produced every year by the fine folks at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. According to it, prior to 2004 the state had 1,255 acres of Malbec. Last year, acreage had grown to 2,689–considerably more than double. Acreage of Cabernet Sauvignon in California, by contrast, increased in the same period from 71,472 acres to only 80,630–a much smaller rate of growth.

In Napa County, according to the Acreage Report, Malbec increased 70% in acreage between 2004-2012, from 230 acres to 392 acres. That’s still not a lot: There were just under 20,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2012. Still, this is evidence that vintners are taking a second look at Malbec and what it can bring to red wine.

Personally, I don’t think California Malbec, bottled on its own as a varietal, is very interesting. Dark, tannic and fruity, yes: compelling, rarely. My scores tend to be in the 86-88 point range. There are, as always, exceptions: Mt. Brave’s 2009, from Mount Veeder, is an awesome wine.

But as a blender, well,…Some wineries in Paso Robles (Bon Niche, for example) are tinkering with Malbec as a component, as are others in Napa: Michael Pozzan’s 2010 Marianna, a Bordeaux blend, is excellent, as is Mount Veeder’s 2009 Reserve Cabernet, blended with Malbec and Petit Verdot. That formula is hewed to at CADE, which adds a little Merlot to it, with their 2009 Napa Cuvée. Newton, meanwhile, replaces the Petit Verdot with Cabernet Franc in their delicious 2010 Unfiltered Merlot. Across the hill, Lancaster, in their 2009 Nicole’s, deepens the interest of their Cabernet Sauvignon with 25% Malbec, bringing a brooding, earthy quality. In all these cases, what the Malbec brings is depth, color, and a certain juicy softness despite the tannins.

Just yesterday morning, Peter Cargasacchi had asked, via Facebook, what the components of the 1961 Cheval Blanc had been. I went to Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s 1969 The Wines of Bordeaux where he wrote that the vineyard, in the Sixties, was “37% Merlot, 43 Bouchet and 20% Pressac (Malbec).” (“Bouchet” apparently was not the Alicante that we know in California, but an old name for Cabernet Franc.) Michael Broadbent, in The Great Vintage Wine Book, ranked that wine higher than Ausone of the same vintage, although not as highly as the five First Growths of the Médoc. The point, anyway, is that Malbec in Bordeaux and especially in the Right Bank historically was considered good enough to put into the cuvée, but I think it’s lost its luster in recent decades; after the devastating 1956 frost in Bordeaux, which killed much of it off, it was replaced with other grapes, in the belief perhaps that Malbec is a bit rustic. (That is precisely the word Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson use to describe it, in The World Atlas of Wine.)

It is rustic, although I certainly wouldn’t complain if you opened a bottle of Catena Zapata for me. I suspect that Malbec’s recent popularity in Napa Valley is as much due to the search for novelty (and playing off its popularity in Argentina) as anything else. Sometimes, winemakers “throw spaghetti at the wall” to see what sticks. I suppose you can’t blame them for not wanting to rest on their laurels, but sometimes I wonder where the line is between innovation that actually improves things, as opposed to change for its own sake.


“Tasting better than claret”

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One of the most pleasurable bottles of wine I ever drank was a 1978 Almaden Cabernet Sauvignon, with a Monterey County appellation. I’d just moved to San Francisco and was poor, renting an unheated apartment, in the dead of winter, in the Ingleside District, just below Top of the Hill Daly City (and if you know that neighborhood, you know that it’s a cold, foggy, working class, decidedly unglamorous place, then as well as now).

That wine was the first Cabernet Sauvignon I’d ever consciously purchased, as a varietal wine to try and understand the meaning of “Cabernet Sauvignon”. It probably cost all of $3. I remember sitting at my desk, on that chilly December night, shivering in my bones, but delighting in the velvet caress of the wine. I took notes, recording every facet of the tasting experience: the texture, the flavors, the body, the finish. (At that time, I did not know that Monterey Cabernet was under fierce attack by critics.) With that act, I had opened the door to becoming a true wine lover: more than opened it, I had marched proudly right through it, never to go back again.

These memories came rushing back to me when I read these words in Pete Townshend’s superb memoir, Who I Am (HarperCollins, 2012): Referring to a family vacation he’d taken in the early 1970s through the South of France, Pete writes: “When we shopped, Karen [his wife] and I bought huge flagon-baskets of cheap local wine–tasting better than claret…”.

Who knows what the Townshends drank? Probably at the time not even they knew. Perhaps it was a modest little Vin de Pays d’Oc. (A “flagon,” by the way, is a sort of pitcher or rustic bottle; the word, of Latin origin, is related to the Italian fiasco, the traditional straw-matted Chianti bottle.) Yet the memory of that wine, and the pleasure it gave him, remained in Pete Townshend’s mind for 40 years. (And how many of his memories of Lafite, Cristal or Dom perished in that time span?)

Is there any more proof that wine need not be famous and expensive in order to have such lasting impact? Here’s Hemingway, from A Moveable Feast: “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

We know as little of what wine the narrator drank with those oysters as we know of the Townshends’ South of France wine. It could have been a minerally Muscadet-Sevre et Maine, or maybe even a simple Petit Chablis. Whatever it was, it likely was not costly. Yet it formed a sense impression on Hemingway that not only persisted, but was so brightly etched in his mind that he labored to express it in words.

The point, I guess, is that any wine, from anywhere, can make you happy. That is wine’s glory and distinction. It’s why I’ve always had an anti-elitist attitude. The point of view that only famous, acclaimed wines are worth anyone’s attention is repugnant to me. Of course, I have my own opinions, which I express freely in my job as a wine critic, but I never lose sight of the fact that they’re just opinions. Someone, somewhere, is going to fall in love with a wine I give 84 points to, and that’s just how it should be. Salud!

By the way: Was there a wine that stands out in your memory?


Why big is better (but just up to a point)

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In my job as a critic who gives point scores to wines, even after all these years I still think all the time about just why I give high scores to certain wines and not-so-high scores to most others.

Just what is it that, in my head, makes one Cabernet score 96 points and another “only” 89? It’s not that the latter Cab is bad. In fact, it may be better to drink (under certain circumstances) than the former. This is where a certain arbitrariness comes in–but it’s an arbitrariness with rules.

The main thing I look for in a wine is power. There are synonyms for power: concentration, intensity, volume, size, mass. (These are all nouns; their corresponding adjectives would be words like intense, massive, powerful, huge, etc.). The more mass a wine has, the more likely I am to give it a high score.

It can be tricky, though, determining the line between mass that’s pleasingly balanced, and mass that’s just power for its own sake. I hate to engage in meaningless metaphors, but I sometimes make analogies in my mind to power that’s controlled, as opposed to uncontrolled power. Imagine a large dam, like Hoover Dam or Boulder Dam. Controlled power is when the dam’s walls hold; the force of all that water can be used for productive ends, such as the manufacture of power to turn turbines. That’s controlled power. Imagine next that an earthquake destroys the dam’s foundations, resulting in a great flood that destroys forests and buildings and lives. That’s uncontrolled power.

I realize the comparison isn’t perfect, but that’s how it feels to me when I taste–the kind of sense impression the wine gives, from my first glimpse and sniff to the way it occupies my mouth. And quite often, I find the balance of power, especially in red wines, slipping away from control into abandonment and chaos.

This usually happens when a winery has two (or more) tiers of a wine, often expressed as a “regular” regional bottling and a “reserve.” Most often the reserve is a more concentrated version of the regular; that is, whatever characteristics the regular has (specific flavors, quality of tannins and oak, acidity, alcohol), the reserve will possess also, but in spades: everything will be more, greater, more evident. Sometimes, this works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, more is more; sometimes, more is less. Just because the wine goes from 60% new French oak to 100% (or 200%) new French oak doesn’t make it better; it can make the wine merely oakier, which in itself is not balance but imbalance. Same with fruity concentration. There are technical ways of increasing the extract in wine, but the winemaker has to be very careful with tinkering, because there’s a thin line between “massive fruit” (a term I might use positively) and a fruit bomb. Sometimes, I taste these reserve-style Cabs and I’ll give it a lower score than the regular Cab (even though it costs a lot more money) for the very reason that the winemaker tried too hard to impress with sheer force. There is something to be said for finesse, restraint, elegance: Just because the California sunshine and warmth allows you to make a fruit bomb doesn’t mean you ought to.

The final step in my thinking process when reviewing such wines is, inevitably, this: Granted that the wine tastes clumsy now, might it age? Part of the problem is that the way I was educated about wine. I read the likes of Professor Saintsbury and Eddie Penning-Rowsell and learned to appreciate that a fine Bordeaux that tastes hard and unyielding in youth might turn out silky and delicious if given enough time in the cellar. Well, that’s true, as far as it goes: But there’s a big difference between a young wine that’s clumsy because it’s hard and tannic, and one that’s clumsy because it’s a fruit bomb. I don’t think it’s right to assume that a wine will age simply because (a) it’s a Napa Valley Cab, (b) it costs triple digits and (c) it has more fruit than a roadside fruit stand in August.

If there’s a cautionary tale here, it’s to advise vintners that just because you can extract massive fruit doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Show some restraint, please. Not just in reds but in whites: I’ve seen too many perfectly fine Chardonnays ruined by massive applications of oak, or oak-like aromas and flavors. I’ve always defended California from the naysayers who claim it’s too hot here to grow fine wine (a patent absurdity), but it is getting difficult to defend these over-extracted, overly-oaked, too soft and too sweet wines that seem to be popping up even in the $30-$40 and up ultrapremium range.


At “Wines of Danger,” some gems

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Carlos Danger didn’t show up, but that was probably a good thing, for we could concentrate on the task at hand: tasting wine, at this trade and media “Wines of Danger” tasting, held Monday at San Francisco’s tony, modernistic Press Club.

Why they called it “Wines of Danger,” I couldn’t say, except that it seems like every event needs a catchy moniker these days. At any rate, I took BART into the City, for there were (a) a few winemakers I already know and wanted to see, and (b) quite a number of wineries I’d never heard of and wanted to discover.

Part of my job for Wine Enthusiast is to make sure that “not a single sparrow can fall to the ground” [Matthew 10:29] without me knowing it. I obviously can’t taste everything in my region of California (the coast), but I can try and be aware of new wineries. So here are a few of my discoveries. I am not assigning numerical ratings, as I do at Wine Enthusiast, although, if I did, all these wines would score highly. While these are not formal reviews, I do hope the winemakers will add me to their samples lists.

Paro. The owner/winemaker, Patrick Ridder, works at Fieldstone for his day job; Paro is his own baby.

2010 Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir ($30). Nice, Burgundian touch of earth and mushrooms to the cherry pie and cola. New oak not yet integrated; needs time.

2011 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($30). From the Laguna area, deep, dark aromas and flavors of cola, rhubarb, black cherries, highlighted with brisk acidity. Classic Laguna, but needs 8-10 years.

2011 Tudor House Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($30). So different from the others. Softer, almost sweet, but complex and fruity. The alcohol is fairly hefty.

2012 Jasper Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($30). Just bottled. Tight, but very rich, a full-blown Burgundian Chard, barrel fermented and 100% malolactic fermentation. I would buy this.

People’s Wine Revolution. One of the owner/winemakers is Matt Reid, who makes the wine at Ballentine. The brand name refers, not to politics, but to Matt’s desire  to make wine affordable.

2008 Bea’s Knees Petite Sirah, El Dorado County ($15). Rich and full-bodied, with sweet blackberry, licorice and cedar. Give it a breather.

2011 Massa Ranch Syrah, Yountville ($18). After a bit of swirling opened to reveal bacon, black pepper, mulberry and cedar. Needs a few years. Good price.

2012 The People’s Viognier, Salem Ranch, Yountville ($15). Classic varietal, with tropical fruits, peaches, limes. Crisp, acidic and rich.

Site. Owner/winemaker Jeremy Weintraub makes the wines at Adelaida; this was his first showing ever of his own brand.

2012 Roussanne, Santa Ynez Valley ($40). Huge amounts of tropical fruits, honey, buttered toast, but balanced with acids. This is a blend of the Stolpman and Larner vineyards.

2012 Larner Vineyard Viognier, Santa Ynez Valley ($25). Almost blowsy, with sweet tropical fruit, citrus, white flower (honeysuckle), but saved at the last moment by acidity and minerality.

2012 Bien Nacido Vineyard Syrah, Santa Maria Valley ($50). Very tight and youthful, rich in acids, blackberry jam and coffee notes. Not ready. Better towards 2020.

2012 Larner Vineyard Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley ($50). Gorgeous aromatics. Black pepper, blackberry jam, dark chocolate, roasted meat. A sensation. Drinkable now despite the tannins, but will age.

2012 Larner Vineyard Grenache, Santa Ynez Valley ($50). Extraordinarily rich, with raspberry, mocha and cedar flavors. Almost sweet, but pulls back into dryness at the finish. Give it 4-5 years.


The “debate” over the usefulness of tasting notes is the biggest non-issue in the wine industry

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My Tasting Director at Wine Enthusiast, Lauren Buzzeo, who has a hard job but carries it off with aplomb, sent us reviewers a link to this article yesterday. It’s a defense of tasting notes by a Washington State guy who runs the wine department in a grocery store.

He begins by postulating that “Most of the stuff I have read lately suggests that tasting notes are a complete waste of time, and most people do not even pay attention to them.” He then proceeds, logically and patiently, to demolish this theory. Then, based on his own experiences with his customers, he concludes that “Tasting notes have an important place in the wine world. They give the consumer some insight into what they are to expect out of a wine.”

I’ve written endlessly about this topic on steveheimoff.com. As the Washington State writer noted, the issue of whether or not tasting notes are irrelevant “seems to be the hottest debate on most of the wine blogs or wine related blogs and websites these days.” As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, the fact is, quite obviously, that consumers do like to read tasting notes. As the writer stated, his customers love them–and by extension, that means that customers around the country feel a need and desire for expert tasting notes, for why would Washington State wine consumers be any different from those elsewhere?

But that’s not the point I want to make…again. Instead, I want to answer this question the Washington State guy posed: “Why are so many wine writers taking a negative stance towards tasting notes?” He himself posited a few possible reasons: (1) these critics don’t actually sell wine, so they don’t get the kind of positive feedback about tasting notes that he does; (2) the critics simply aren’t very good at writing tasting notes, so they prefer to just sit back and make fun of them instead of trying to do it themselves.

Both of these are completely true, but I’d like to offer a third reason for the continual bashing of reviews by certain writers: Jealousy. They can’t stand the idea that some wine writers actually make a living at writing wine reviews. If you look at who the review-bashers are, they’re mostly bloggers, and you know what that means: They’d love for somebody to pay them to be professional wine writers, but no one will, so their only outlet is their blog. I sometimes think the fierce attack we published critics come under is also motivated by the hope by these bloggers that somehow their criticisms will tarnish us so much that we’ll eventually fall, and guess who would take our places? The bloggers!

So I’d like to propose an end to this silly non-debate about whether or not tasting notes are useless or irrelevant. It is the biggest non-issue in the wine industry today. The only reason it gets any play at all is because the Internet is free and immediate, so anyone can make any idiotic claim they want, and launch it around the world with the push of a button. I will end simply by quoting the Washington State guy: “I write [tasting notes] for the consumer. I could care less what another columnist thinks about my notes and I certainly don’t agree with their criticism of the notes themselves.”


When is a “flaw” not a flaw?

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Got an email from a wine director at a restaurant yesterday. She wrote:

Yesterday I was tasting through my wines by the glass to make new notes after going through some recent vintage changes when I smelled the 2012 ___ Sauvignon Blanc. I was so overwhelmed by the smell of rotten green pepper and shocked by the complete lack of the usual ripe grapefruit notes. I generally get excited when I come upon a wine with a flaw as I look at it as a learning experience I can share with my staff. But to my shock, most of my staff did not smell the same thing I did and no one smelled it to the extent that I did. I opened several bottles then went on to a new case but they all smelled the same to me. I was convinced there was a flaw but questioned myself that no one smelled the horrible things I did. I pulled the wine right away. So, my question is, is this strong smell considered a flaw or is it just bad judgment on the part of the winemaker and producer to release a wine like this?

(The wine director identified a specific New Zealand Sauv Blanc but there’s no point in revealing it here.) There are two points she made that leaped out to me, both of which are interesting enough to warrant a little chat.

The first was “most of my staff did not smell the same thing I did.” This points out the subjectivity of wine tasting. Whatever caused the green pepper smell that the wine director picked up on (and I couldn’t say that it was pyrazine because I haven’t tasted that wine), it seems that she was more sensitive to it than the rest of her staff. I myself am very sensitive to pyrazine, and I don’t much care for it if it exceeds a certain tipping point in a Sauvignon Blanc. But on the other hand, I’ve met people who are far more sensitive than I am to TCA and brett.

The second point is contained in the wine director’s question and is in some ways the more interesting one. “Is this strong smell considered a flaw or is it just bad judgment on the part of the winemaker?”

I don’t think it was a flaw, technically speaking, but it depends on how you define “flaw.” Generally, flaws in wine are considered to be egregious violations of the basic sanitary and chemistry things you learn in winemaking school. For example, a young white wine that is brown in color and smells old may have been oxidized; that is a flaw, but on the other hand, you want a degree of oxidation in some white wines (Sherry, for example). Aromas that are rancid also are considered flaws, but in some older wines (Priorats, for example), a little rancidity is considered desirable. And consider brett itself. Technically, it’s a flaw, but some winemakers (and wine drinkers) like a touch of it in their wines.

If we assume the cause of pyrazine smell is unripe grapes, can we call that a flaw? In one sense, maybe: I mean, you wouldn’t make a wine out of grapes that were 13% brix, would you? But if pyrazine’s a flaw, it’s not on the scale of letting a white wine get oxidized to the point of brown stinkiness. Pyrazine could be and usually is a vintage problem (and you can’t accuse Mother Nature of committing flaws). But it could be a marketing decision to bottle and sell a pyraziney wine (one that the winemaker may not want to put out there, but has to be sold anyway, for economic reasons).

Is it bad judgment to sell a wine that some people will think is flawed, like that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? Well, not necessarily. The wine director who emailed me thought it was flawed, but no one else on her staff did. It’s conceivable that, even had the winemaker known the wine was high in pyrazines, he would have green-lighted it anyway (assuming he had that power, rather than a sales director or owner), knowing that it wasn’t so excessive that critics all over the world would condemn it as cat pee.

So this question of what constitutes a flaw, and what doesn’t, is more complicated than you might think.


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