Archive for the ‘New Zealand’ Category

The Case of Cases

September 20, 2018

This is a post that will hardly be of interest to anyone but me. No pictures, just words. No tasting comments, just thoughts. Anyone not interested can leave now: No offense will be taken.

I’ve been wondering lately about whether it would be possible to put together a case of wines that would enable wannabe winos to learn the world of wine on their own, at their own pace. I myself got hooked on wine long ago by just such a mixed case that a retailer in Baltimore put together for me so I could explore wine.

Of course, the wine world was a lot smaller back then, and very different from what it is now. That case cost about $100, which then was a substantial fraction of my monthly wage, and it consisted, if memory serves, entirely of French wines – because way back then if you wanted to understand wine, wine spoke French. Germany, Spain, and Portugal came up in wine conversation only peripherally, Italy and Austria very rarely, and California was the smallest, remotest blip on the radar. For most American wine lovers, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand did not exist as wine-producing countries, only as exotic vacation destinations.

I don’t have to tell you that much has changed since then, and genuinely for the better. The wine world is broader and far more diverse now, and field and cellar techniques have improved to such an extent that I can honestly say we’re living in a golden age of wine. We now get good, better-than-drinkable wine from almost every harvest, whereas “back then” one or two of every ten vintages were superior, three or four were OK, and five or six were not worth the drinking.

With all the changes that have occurred, I wondered what would happen today if a naif, as I then was, should walk into a good wine shop and ask a knowledgeable retailer to put together a case of wines to introduce him or her to the world of wine. Phew!  Talk about the labors of Hercules: It would be an impossible task. One bottle from each of the principal wine regions of the world would overflow the case. One bottle from each of the principal wine-producing nations would easily fill it – and what kind of introduction to wine would that be, with something like a single Napa Cabernet representing all the wine of the US, or one red Burgundy all of France?  No, the task couldn’t be approached that way: The whole question has to be rethought.

Perhaps it could be done by using benchmark wines, great ones that show the heights wine can reach. That, of course, is where cost comes into play. Wine prices, like medical costs and the cost of a college education, have increased at many times the rise in incomes, and many times the rate of inflation, especially in recent years. The present-day equivalent of my 1968 $100 would be approximately $725 now: $725 would merely be a down payment on a single bottle of young Château Margaux. Back then, Margaux and Lafite and such wines – the great Bordeaux first growths – were little more than twice the price of wines like Château Gloria and Château Brane Cantenac, which were included in my introductory case. If memory serves, I’m pretty sure those two then cost under $4 a bottle. So the option of structuring our hypothetical case around benchmark great wines can only be a pipe dream: The cost would be prohibitive for all but hedge fund multimillionaires.

So what about organizing by grape variety?  That is, for American wine lovers at least, a very popular approach to wine, so let’s consider it. If we start with white wines, Chardonnay demands inclusion – but its very popularity makes it a difficult choice. Which Chardonnay fairly represents the variety?  Burgundy?  Chablis?  Napa? Sonoma? Long Island? The Finger Lakes? Sicily? Friuli?  Oaked, or fermented in stainless steel?

That would be only Wine #1. Suppose we go on to #2: say Sauvignon blanc. From Sancerre or some other spot on the upper Loire? Or somewhere in California or New York? Or Friuli or Alto Adige? And where do we go for Wine #3?  Riesling, to be sure – but from the Rhine or Moselle, or from Alsace, or the Pacific Northwest, or Australia, or Austria, or Italy?

Only three grapes considered so far, and you see the dimensions of the problems. And the three varieties I’ve so far mentioned show the still built-in Francophilia of the wine world. We haven’t even considered any of the great white grape varieties of Spain and Portugal, Italy, and Greece. And beyond them, there is the plethora of “lesser varieties” from all these countries and from France, any one of which makes perfectly enjoyable wine. Once we say basta to white wines and move to reds, the problem becomes greater still: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot noir, Syrah, Cabernet franc, Mourvèdre – or, to break the Francophilia, Aglianico, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Touriga nacional, Tempranillo, Nerello mascalese, and maybe even Zinfandel.

It’s an endless task. For that reason, for the past 20 years I’ve resisted all suggestions that I update Mastering Wine. It’s impossible: That book’s format can never be used again, not for anything that pretends to be a thorough introduction to wine. No: There’s only one way that our hypothetical instructive case of wines could be assembled, and it’s by pure subjectivity. An individual could do it, drawing entirely on his or her own knowledge and preferences – making them clear, of course, every step of the way. That could produce a coherent collection, with both scope and focus and even some serious attention to cost control. I’m considering trying it, but it will be a time-consuming job, so stay tuned for developments – but not right away.

Used to be Twiggy: Sauvignon blanc

July 26, 2013

Many, many years ago, back in Mastering Wine, I described the difference between Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc as Marilyn TwiggyMonroe compared to Twiggy. That comparison is pretty dated now, for a lot of reasons. Most run-of-the-mill Chardonnays have gotten a lot more zaftig – not to say flabby – than they used to be, moving closer to Roseanne and Melissa McCarthy than Marilyn. Some Sauvignons have gone the opposite direction and become positively anorexic, grassy and herbal as a ruminant’s lunch. And some – especially New World Sauvignons – have plumped up (to put it kindly) and become fruit cocktails.

Once upon that long-ago time, I was quite fond of Sauvignon blanc. When its grass and herbaceousness and cat’s pee flavors were moderated by some grapiness and the occasional taste of terroir, as was common then in Sancerre and other Loire valley Sauvignons, it could be a very elegant wine, useful in many dinner situations.

From Jancis Robinson's Vines, Grapes, and Wines

From Jancis Robinson’s Vines, Grapes, and Wines

I’m not sure, as time has passed, whether my palate has changed or the wine has, but the fact is that I haven’t these days enjoyed most Sauvignons. I found many of them extremely grassy and herbal, or at the other extreme so fat with oak and vanilla, that I simply couldn’t drink them. This may be just poor viticulture and viniculture – bad work in the field and worse in the cellar – but its consequences are that I had even begun to think of the grape variety as distinctly second tier, if not third.

I hate to lose a wine: The world’s repertory of truly noble wine grapes is not so vast that we can spare any. So I set out, in a modest, home-tasting way, to explore contemporary Sauvignon blanc. I tried a sort-of representative sample of Sauvignons from key parts of the winemaking world to see what, my prejudices and memories set aside, the present state of Sauvignon blanc truly is.

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The most obvious thing about Sauvignon blanc nowadays is that it’s grown and vinified just about everywhere: Name an important or burgeoning wine area, and Sauvignon blanc will be there. That’s pretty surprising for a variety whose northern European origins – all the DNA evidence points to the Loire valley, which was its epicenter for most of its history – make it unsuitable for growing in particularly warm areas. On its home ground, it became a notable wine as Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé and later spread from the Loire to Bordeaux where it became an important component of both dry white Bordeaux and Sauternes.

???????????????????????????????In the past 50 years or so, Sauvignon blanc has become the paradigm international variety: It successfully marched around the world, colonizing California, where Robert Mondavi first made it famous as Fumé blanc, then Australia and New Zealand, South America and South Africa. In New Zealand it scored spectacular success: It became the main motor of the New Zealand wine industry, after Cloudy Bay’s version set an international standard for the breed – richly aromatic, racy, and intensely herbal/grassy. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that, in the popular imagination at least, the international style of Sauvignon blanc has largely pushed the traditional Loire valley style to the margins. For my palate – and that’s the only one I can judge with – Cloudy Bay’s Sauvignon blanc (I tasted the 2012 vintage) is way over the top. Here’s my tasting note (with all my usual caveats about tasting notes):

Pale straw. On the nose, Grass!!! and cat’s pee. Some mineral on palate, but very herbal/citrus. Long grass-and-something finish – gooseberry? Lean-bodied, but big with alcohol. Gets more citrus-y as it opens, but still for my palate an extreme wine – not unbalanced in the conventional wine-speak sense, but almost freakishly top-heavy with exaggerated fruit.

Unfortunately for me, that kind of wine has become the model for most non-European Sauvignon, and probably is what most consumers now think Sauvignon is all about. But since that traditional style of Sauvignon blanc is the one I used to love, I tried to find out if anyone is still making it.

So I turned back to France. Again this wasn’t a systematic tasting, nor a wide one – but it was quite satisfying. The handful of wines I tasted – 2012 Francois Crochet Sancerre Les Perrois, 2011 Domaine Reverdy-Ducroux Sancerre, 2012 Pointe d’agrumes Touraine Sauvignon Blanc – all shared a restraint and balance that made them very successful dinner wines. None was strongly grassy – in fact I had to hunt hard in most to smell and taste grass – and all showed elements of terroir in their flavor – flint and wet stones, riding along with occasional citrus (grapefruit) notes. Home at last.

Loire wines

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Given my great passion for Italian wines, I naturally had to see what happened to Sauvignon blanc there. I tried several Sauvignons from northern Italy – Alto Adige, Venezia-Giulia, Friuli – all with some pleasure. The grassiness that I dislike was never as prominent as in New World wines – but I did find that the further west I went from Friuli the more it showed in the aroma, though rarely on the palate. So the 2011 Tiefenbrunner Kerchleiten Sauvignon and the 2012 Tramin Sauvignon (both Alto Adige) both gave a little grass on the nose while having more mineral-inflected notes on the palate. Both were fine with food. Bortoluzzi’s 2011 from Venezia Giulia showed much more mineral all through, and conveyed a nice hint of terroir.

Northern Italy wines

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Once into Friuli proper, I found that Sauvignon blanc seems to have discovered a whole new home for itself. Producers like Villa Russiz and Vie di Romans are turning out balanced, restrained Sauvignons marked by strong minerality and gout de terroir, medium-bodied and conveying a round mouth-feel despite bright acidity. You would never confuse them with Sancerre or its kin – they offer a completely different style and flavor range – but these are wines that equally convincingly convey a sense of place, that they have found their place. Normally I am no fan of international grapes in Italy, but in Friuli Sauvignon blanc turns out to be a variety I can get enthusiastic about.

Friuli wines