Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Fallacy of Terroir

The fallacy of terroir is not that it doesn't exist, it is that people keep saying there is no English-language equivalent of the concept. Many people attribute, soil, climate and topography as the common denominator of terroir. According to the infallible Wikipedia, "at its core is the assumption that the land from which the grapes are grown imparts a unique quality that is specific to that growing site." Thus, terroir is often described as the set of special characteristics of a certain place. Depending on scale, that could be a region, a village, a vineyard or even a specific block within a vineyard. This is exemplified by the fact that syrah wines differ from Hermitage, Barossa and Paso Robles despite being made from the same grape cultivar. Perhaps the concept of terroir is best epitomized in Burgundy where famed climats like Romanée, Romanée-Conti and Richebourg in Vosne-Romanée are only meters apart and yield distinct wines all made from pinot noir.

Yes, the soils, climate (not so much in Vosne-Romanée) and topography vary in each of these places. But one thing that is too often left out of the terroir discourse is the anthropic influence. After all, grape vines don't decide where they grow, harvest themselves or stop fermentation before the product is vinegar. Some people, including myself, add the human element to the concept of terroir. Whether or not you include people as part of the terroir of a place, there is in fact an English word that covers all the definitions of the concept: geography. In English, the characteristics of a wine can be said to come from the geography of a place. Geography is more than just maps (actually, the study of maps is called cartography). Geography encompasses soil, climate, topography, geology, history and cultural practices of a place.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Wine Libraries (not the Gary Vaynerchuk kind...)

I was going to start this post off by saying all wineries need to have wine libraries. Many of the liquor stores in Denver are in fact libraries of just the type of wines that shouldn't be saved for future consumption. Too often when I've gone into an off-the-beaten path shop I've seen bottles of $5.99 merlot from vintages in the early 1990s just sitting there sullenly on the bottom shelf. Perhaps they'd make decent salad dressing now, but should not still be offered for sale as wine. Despite wines like these that need not be unopened past their third birthday, more wineries ought to keep wine libraries. There are several reasons to do so.

First, saving a few bottles (or cases) of a wine has an important research application for a winery. All too often I see wineries with less than a handful of released vintages claiming their wine will drink well for 20-25 years. This may be the case, but there is no actual evidence that it will be the case. Sure, a winery can't wait 25 years to make the claim that their wines will actually last a generation as a serviceable beverage, but at least tasting a few wines after they've been laid down for a few years will provide some evidence of such claims.

Second, wineries need to document the results of the choices they made between bud break and the time the finished wine is bottled. If the entire production is sold, a winery will have no way of knowing how the acid adjustment or the spinning cones (or the non-interventionist approach) turned out. Holding back a few samples is necessary for finding out how the wine changes with age. Some people call it drinking, but in the wine industry it should be called research and development. Wineries should always try to be improving on their most recent vintage and there might be no better way than drinking their wines when they have aged.

Third, and maybe most important for consumers, library wines means library releases. Reserving more than a few cases allows a winery to re-release wines that may be their customers weren't able to buy on release. Many consumers don't have the patience or the ability to hold on to wines until they're at their peak, so being able to buy directly from the winery a few years down the line has its advantages. Knowing how a wine ages is often a key piece of information consumers use when trying to decide on how much of a currently release to buy. One of a winery's advantages is charging a premium for library wine. As long as a the premium isn't outrageous, it's a win-win situation for the winery and the consumer.

Scherrer "Shale Terrace" Zinfandel, Alexander Valley AVA
Without library releases I wouldn't have had the opportunity to drink the 2005 Scherrer "Shale Terrace" Zinfandel I enjoyed on Independence Day. There is something to said about having perfectly aged wines as your first experience with a winery. I bought a few new releases and a few aged bottles. The Fourth of July seemed like an opportune time to open one of the zinfandels. This wine was not like the zinfandels most consumers are used to. Big, fruity young wines is kind of zinfandel's character in the wine world. The Scherrer was starting to show a brick color and the aromas were more secondary in nature than most zins. The fruit was still there, but extra few years in the bottle (and in the winery's own cellar) allowed the wine to develop more toffee and savory flavors. It was still a big wine, but exceptionally smooth and complex. Complexity is often one of the characteristics critics use when determining quality, and yet somewhat ironically in the world of barrel tasting and futures complexity may take several years in the bottle to reveal itself. So, to wineries, I urge you to keep more of your wines held back. Taste them yourselves and re-release them a few years down the road. Consumers, next time you're at a winery I urge you to ask about their library program. Buy a bottle and experience what a few years of aging can do.

Monday, July 8, 2013

A Fortnight Without Wine

Last month, my beautiful wife went to Argentina for 16 days for a school trip. Naturally, I didn't drink wine while she was gone (mourning and all...). Well, that's not exactly the case. I did attend a Ribera del Duero tasting and I shared a bottle of J "Cuvée 20" Brut with George Rose (Director of Communications for J) over dinner. But at home, it was just beer or water that was in my glass.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Congratulations, not condescension are in order...

I'll go ahead and say it. Congratulations, Charles Shaw Winery on your three gold medals at the Orange County Fair Wine Competition. I commend the judges for not being influenced by the label and I commend the winery for (mass) producing a drinkable $2.49 wine.  I don't see why so many people in the twitterverse and blogosphere have decided that this is the worst thing since socks with sandals. But if you do wear socks with sandals, please stop!

Sure, wine competitions aren't the best arbiter of wine quality, but neither are Robert Parker, James Laube or Steve Whatshisname. I've had 100-pt Parker wines that tasted like dilly dishwater. I've had wines from Iowa that were pretty damn good. All competitions do is give feedback to a select set of wineries about how their wine fared against a few other wines on a given day as decreed by people that think they know a lot about wine, but don't know as much as they think they do. Yes, I count myself as a member of the illustrious club.

I think a lot of the angst has do do with the obnoxious "triple gold" headlines. It is a bit misleading. All that happened was three Charles Shaw wines earned gold medals. None were chosen as Best in Category or even 4-star gold medals (whatever the hell that means). 70% of the wines entered in this competition received a medal (1765/2521). Only 15.8% of the entries earned gold or better. Not bad for a sub $3 bottle of wine. But no wine competition is as influential as the major publications, and few consumers know what competition medals mean (if they mean anything at all). So lay off the criticism, people.

Now I won't make any claims to the quality of any Two Buck Chuck (as Charles Shaw is affectionately called). The last time I tried one, probably 4 years ago, it didn't impress me, but it wasn't the "beyond dreadful" or the "watery, alcoholic null set" that two respectable personalities claimed on Twitter. If I remember correctly, the glass I had was simplistic and uninteresting, but varietally correct and not flawed. I wonder when the last time any of the naysayers on the Internet actually tasted a bottle of Charles Shaw.

What should be praised, but is overlooked is the fact that this blind tasting showed that a wine can be judged by what's in bottle and not what's on the label. Preconceived notions should not influence what a judge thinks about a wine. Too often in the world of wine criticism, writers judge a wine by the label and not the wine. None of the judges that reviewed these wines knew what they were tasting. It's not like they lined up the wines themselves, put them in bags, moved them around their desk and magically forgot the identities of the bottles. Had the judges known they were tasting Two Buck Chuck, I'd bet gold medals would not have been awarded. But that is the beauty if blind tasting. A $3 wine can stand on equal footing with a $30 wine.

So, I say lets celebrate the idea of a quality cheap wine. It's not like Charles Shaw is going to raise its prices to $850 a bottle because of these accolades. This competition isn't the most important source of consumer information and in fact is open only to "wine produced from grapes grown in California and commercially available for sale in Orange County." Charles Shaw will still be loved by its fans and loathed by most wine snobs...