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It’s the balance, stupid


My San Francisco tasting group met again on Monday. It was a warm day in the city, with blue skies and a temperate breeze from the north, and outside the window the Bay Bridge and the waters of the Bay sparkled under the sun.

All we knew of the wines was that they were Cabernet Sauvignon, or Bordeaux blends, from around the world, and from multiple vintages. Our host, Gary, had set up eight glasses, but one of the members, Chris, brought a ninth wine, so this was added at the last minute.

We always rank the wines in order of preference, then get a group ranking, but this time, we agreed beforehand that rank would be of lesser importance than the discussion of terroir that would follow. We were each asked to guess the country or region of origin of the wine as well as its approximate age. Of course, if anybody wanted to go out on a limb and guess the producer, that was okay, too.

In blind tasting, I proceed this way: Visual, aroma, taste. You start with broad-brush conclusions that are no more than guesses, really, but quite often that first impression can be your best guidance. Too much thought can be crippling. Right off the bat, I could see that the wine Chris brought was far and away the palest in color. It was orange at the rim, or meniscus, and I judged it was at least 15 years old on that basis alone.

It would take too much space to go through each of the wines, but here are some highlights. Chris’s old wine was in fact the 1990 Capezzana Ghiaie Della Furba, a Super-Tuscan blend of Cab, Merlot and Syrah. It was an instructive lesson in the appreciation of an older wine, starting out delicately perfumed and spicy, but after 30 minutes it began to dry out, and the alcohol showed through. My top wine of the flight — in fact, the group’s top wine by far — was another Italian: the 2001 Rampolla Vigna d’Alceo ($200), a Tuscan blend of Cabernet and Petit Verdot. It showed impeccable balance even in the company of the other wines: Penfolds 1994 Bin 707 ($110), 2002 Rudd, 2000 Lynch-Bages ($240), 1995 Montelena ($150), 1997 Togni ($225), 2001 Spottswoode ($150) and 2002 DuBrul “Cote Bonneville,” a Yakima Valley Bordeaux blend ($125). All the wines were quite good, although the Lynch-Bages was a little heavy and so was the Togni. But that Rampolla made me understand, or re-understand (for it’s a lesson you can never absorb enough), the importance of things like balance, harmony, elegance and class in the evaluation of wine.

There were 2 other take-home lessons from the tasting.

1. How much a complex wine can change in the glass. For example, the Montelena grew dramatically better after an hour of airing and warming up. This confirmed to me what a pity it is that I — and most other critics — can offer only a shapshot of a wine, an appraisal of how it is at a particular moment in time. Someday, I’d like to write about how a wine changes in the glass, which is really the way we drink our wines.

2. How terroir is harder to determine than it used to be. Once upon a time, there were huge differences between Tuscany, Pauillac, Napa Valley and Barossa Valley. That’s less so now, as the International Style (or Parkerization, or call it what you will) marches on. I thought the Rudd was a Left Bank Bordeaux, although I nailed Spottswoode and Togni as Napa Valley. And I was gratified when Chris explained that his Italian wine, which I identified as an old Classified Growth Bordeaux, had been planted by Lafite’s vineyard manager, from Lafite cuttings.

  1. Morton Leslie says:

    Steve, hell with Appellation, you were doing good just to guess they were all from Cabernet! Thank God they told you before hand. The last time I did a tasting like that between high end Napa Valley, Tuscan and Bordelaise Cabernet Sauvignon I was struck by how none of the wines tasted like Cabernet. I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, it’s just that winemaking today in all parts of the world through blending in of other varieties, late harvest, and big oak has made the old game of guessing almost impossible.

    It used to be so easy to separate a Bordeaux from a Napa Valley wine. I would say in the 70’s you could nail it 90% of the time. I used to slip classified Bordeaux into blind tastings where we (winemaker, gen.mgr, and cellar crew) compared our wine to our competitors. The Bordeaux was too obvious for it to be “blind” even for the maintenance supervisor.

    Today I long for the tang of a piquant, juicy Cab with bright varietal and a touch of green olive that is subtly, but distinctly nuanced by soil, slope, exposure, latitude, longitude, and climate. Maybe it’s just nostalgia in an ageing man, but I think Cabernet used to be more fun.

  2. Steve

    I cannot agree more with you about that first point. I have a problem with assigning points to a wine, I believe it is impossible to ascribe a point value to something as personal as taste. This is just another reason, when tasting through wines, generally done at a fairly rapid rate, taking that brief snapshot of the wine and making a value judgment is just wrong.

    Nice view, where were you? Waterbar?

  3. Steve,

    Thanks for the blog. Your take home message #1 rings very true for me as well, and it’s one of the things that makes rating, and enjoying, a wine a challenge. During any tasting, you ‘rate’ a wine at a specific time and place – most of the time, you do not have the time or ability to go back and retaste the wine 1, 2, or more hours later. And I agree with you that a good wine should, and will, change dramatically in the glass over time.

    When we do ‘competitive’ tastings at the winery, we open all bottles at the same time and pour them after a few minutes – we do not decant nor let sit open for hours at a time. We are aware that wines may not show their best using this technique, but at least all wines will be reviewed under the same ‘conditions’ . . .


  4. Steve,

    Your point #1 about wine changing in the glass is very key.

    Remember the issue of “tasting room bias” we discussed earlier on this blog?

    It may be a logistical quandary for some, but each reviewed wine needs to be taken through its paces: across changes in temperature, over time after decanting, changes in ambient temperature and humidity, etc. I also believe in tasting some of the left-over wine the following day.

    Also, with the NAWBC coming up at the end of October, I keep thinking of the tasting challenge. How can one guess a wine (producer, region, etc) if they have never tasted it before?

  5. Dr. Horowitz says:

    Yeah, I also agree about wine changing in the glass. It would be interesting to hear about the science behind decanting. I work in a tasting room where we decant one of our wines. Customers asks “Why do you decant this wine?” and the standard response is “it lets the wine oxygenate and helps it open up.” How the f does oxygen help “open up” wine? Should I start decanting milk?

    Yeah, I am also skeptical about the notion of terrior. After reading Rosenthal’s book it seems as though the ability to taste differences in terrior is what I should be striving for in life. Is terrior just France’s way of trying to maintain its dominance? I don’t really want to have to spend a bunch of money on expensive French wine to find out the answer to this question.

  6. Steve
    My takeaway is that the wine world has reached a pretty decadent state when you drink a bunch of $200 wines and they are “all quite good”. I would love to join your tasting group, but I couldn’t afford it. As for the premature obituaries for terroir, it ain’t “parkerization”- he doesn’t make wine, and hasn’t authored any winemaking texts. It’s “godzillaization”. Bigger is all that matters, and terroir is tossed by the wayside as people pick overripe fruit then add oak flour and acid and enzymes and polysaccharides and then put it in 200% new oak and God knows what else. Yeah, parker likes those wines. And parker equals sales- or so everyone believes. What a bunch of sheep. Parker also likes brett. I don’t see anybody throwing sweaty horse blankets and hamster cages into their fermentors. Winemakers should know better, but we are always ready to chase a trend. International style, parker winemaking is just a little historical anomaly, a greed-induced sideshow to the real main attraction, which is thousands of years of simply made balanced wines that taste of their geographical origin. Kudos to you for advocating balance, elegance, and the pleasant experience of spending time with a truly interesting wine, as opposed to having your perfectly good ol’factory smashed up by the monster truck version now so popular. Maybe that’s what you meant by “heavy”.
    As for decanting, I don’t pretend to know all the ins and outs of redox chemistry with respect to human olfactory response. Basically, wine in bottle is frequently in a chemically reduced state (unbonded electrons hanging around). Our senses don’t find those reductive compounds pleasurable. There is probably a biological, evolutionary explanation for this. Decanting oxidizes (oxygen from air bonds with the electrons and chemicals in the wine, to make new, different molecules) the aroma and flavor compounds in wine, and we enjoy the oxidized versions more, or perhaps they are more volatile and easier to smell. Cooking does a similar thing to food. Maybe Clark Smith knows the answer. Randall Graham seems to, naysayer that he is, prefer the reduced versions; at least that’s the kind of wine he makes, and defends.
    If you want to explore terroir, you don’t need to drink expensive French wine. Neal Rosenthal sells Italian and French wine, that’s why he writes about those terroirs. Go to Los Olivos, taste some pinot. Go to Russian River Valley, taste some pinot. Go to Monterey, taste some Pinot. Or zin in Paso, Amador, Lodi, and Sonoma, or cab in Napa, Calistoga, Sonoma, Paso, Lodi, and Washington- whatever. Chardonnay might not be so illustrative- the real varietal and geographical character is very delicate, and easily overwhelmed by oak and ML and that’s why winemakers love it. Of course, you can take this trip right in your local wineshop. I think modern winemaking hides terroir somewhat, but if you taste enough wines, you’ll get it. Vineyard location trumps all. Otherwise, they’d be making Caymus in North Carolina. Trust me, they ain’t. God love ’em for trying, though. At least they don’t charge $200 for wine that’s “quite good”.

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