Archive for April, 2008
What makes a wine great?
I don’t mean great as in “pretty tasty, I like it, it’s got a nice beat and I can dance to it” great.
I mean eye-popping, life-changing, “the heavens opened ancient mythology style” great.
That’s a tough question, even for those of us in the wine biz, because so few of us have actually tasted a truly great wine.
I’m going to give you my view of what makes a wine great – and it’s probably not what you’d think.
But before I do that, I need to set the record straight about how I think greatness is judged in the first place…
Winemaking is more art than science. If you disagree with me on this one, then I invite you to read my previous post on the subject.
If you still disagree with me, then you might want to skip the rest of this article entirely, because the rest of this post will be drawing parallels between winemaking and art. For those of you who couldn’t stand art class, I apologize in advance!
Personal preference doesn’t matter. I don’t like pilsner beer. Does that mean that all pilsners are no good, or that they can never achieve greatness? I love the works of Picasso. Does that mean all of Picasso’s art is great? When you stop to think about it, it’s obvious that greatness has nothing to do with any one individual’s personal preferences (not matter how highly that individual might regard his/her own opinion…).
The light red wines of Medieval times would no doubt seem watery and insipid to our Parker-ized palates.
Collective preference does matter. The collective consciousness of a given society and its era in time does matter when it comes to greatness. This is borne out time and time again in art history – and in the annals of wine history as well. If you flip through the pages of Ancient Wine, or the superb Story of Wine, you will learn that the wine of the ancient Greeks and Romans likely would be too cloyingly sweet for our tastes today. The light red wines of Medieval times would no doubt have seemed watery and insipid to our Parker-ized palates. Times make the society; and societies make the collective decision on greatness.
Material matters – but not that much. Is a Picasso painting “greater” than a Picasso sculpture, just because the medium is different? Probably not. In wine, while some grapes (such as Concord) may never make truly great wine, it’s pure folly to discount any one of the “noble” grape varieties when it comes to greatness – all of them are capable of making a great wine. Unless you mixed them altogether. That would probably suck.
Is a Picasso painting “greater” than a Picasso sculpture, just because the medium is different?
Nature matters – and so does nurture. Old World winemakers will tell you that terroir – the nature and place from whence a grape came – is the determinant of whether or not the resulting wine can be great; the winemaker’s job is to interfere as little as possible with the natural process. New World winemakers will tell you that it is trough savvy vineyard practices and the use of modern technology in the wine cellar that greatness is achieved. They’re both right – start with a great pedigree, and finish with great care, and a wine may just achieve greatness.
So how can we measure a wine’s “greatness?”
In The Wine Bible, Karen MacNeil offers 5 criteria that can be used to determine if a wine is great. Her take is as good as any other, so I’ll share a synopsis of it here:
- Distinct varietal character – a wine exemplifies the true characteristics of its grape(s)
- Integration – the wine’s components (alcohol, acidity, fruit, etc.) are harmonious
- Expressiveness – the aromas & flavors are clear & focused
- Complexity – like an artwork, the wine keeps you coming back, discovering more nuances each time
- Connectedness – the wine embodies qualities that link it to the specific place where it was made.
Not a bad list at all. I think it’s missing an important element, however. To me, the most important.
So I’d like to add something to Karen’s fantastic list: Great wine is like great art, or a peaceful meditation, or even a great life lived to its potential with humility and true grace.
Great wine is a Mystery.
By mystery, I don’t mean a problem to be rectified, a secret to be revealed, or a puzzle to be solved. I mean a Mystery like the seat of human consciousness in the brain, the origin of life, the feeling of love, and the nature of pure being.
Great wine is a true Mystery, because it is greater than the sum of its parts in a way that synthesizes our mental, physical, and spiritual selves; connecting us to ourselves, to each other, and to a place and time, and to the earth. The greater the wine, the less likely it is that any words will be capable of adequately describing the experience.
Great wine is a tiny miracle of the universe that cannot ever be fully explained.
Now, before you all start sending me lava lamps, crystals, or patchouli, remember the words of Albert Einstein – “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.“
Which one would you pick?
(images: winefront.com.au, clevelandart.org, restaurantlacaravella.com, macedonian-heritage.gr)
Book Review – Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution by William Echikson
“…the soil of Yquem is like that of a Stradivarius”
– Lur Saluces
The second edition of the on-line Wine Book Club is being hosted by Tim over at the venerable Winecast.net blog. For more information on the WBC, or to jump on in and participate yourself in a book review, check out the official Wine Book Club website and the the Shelfari WBC reader group.
This time around, Tim has chosen Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution by William Echikson. The book is not short on accolades, having been a James Beard Foundation Award finalist. Echikson is also no slouch of a writer, having worked for Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, and written a handful of other well-received books (on wine and other topics).
The Low Down
Noble Rot centers (for the most part) on the history (ancient and recent) of Chateau Yquem, the Sauternes-based makers of some of the sweetest, most expensive, and most intoxicating elixirs known to winemaking…
Similar to Hungary’s famous Tokaji, the sweet wines of Sauternes receive their special magic by virtue of the fungus Botrytis cinearea (aka noble rot). The fungus draws out the water and concentrates the juice left in the grapes while on the vine, and also imparts exotic hints of yeast to the final ultra-sweet wine. High in acidity and sugars, the wines of Yquem are typically capable of aging for decades, if not hundreds of years, while still retaining sweetness and fruity complexity.
Nature doesn’t always cooperate to provide the right environment year-on-year for noble rot – so sweet Yquem is not always produced in every vintage, and grape selection is a laborious (and therefore expensive) process.
[ On a side note, I’ve often wondered who the first poor schlep was that decided to ferment the grapes affected by Botrytis. Like lobster, there is nothing appetizing about their appearance; that person must have been really, really desperate at the time – “I don’t give a sh*t what they look like – throw them into the vat!”… ]
The result is an ultra-expensive, ultra-complex wine, from a Chateau with extreme cache factor (having been run by a single family of nobility for generations). Even at restaurants where it’s offered, Yquem doesn’t always make it onto the wine list.
“With a big spender who doesn’t know anything about wine, putting a bottle of Château d’Yquem on the table is like giving a Porsche to a 16-year-old.” – Aaron Brown, Sommelier of L.A.’s Ortolan restaurant.
The term “noble rot” could also be applied to the nasty struggle for power within the ranks of Yquem itself, to which Echikson devotes a good portion of the book.
Most interesting for me in Noble Rot was how Echikson skillfully details the work ethic of love-him-or-hate-him wine critic Robert Parker. It’s fascinating to watch how a small parcel of Right Bank Bordeaux land, modern winemaking techniques, and a rising Parker score can take a Bordeaux family from near-poverty conditions to fame and fortune (as was the case for the makers of Valandraud), culminating in bad blood between business relations. As Jacques Thienpont (the force behind the similarly meteoric Le Pin) says in Noble Rot: “Life is like a river… You follow it and it takes you on a strange course.” Some stranger than others, no doubt.
Buy It or Skip It?
This is a tough call for me. The book is certainly well-written. But I struggled to understand the best audience to appreciate what the book has to offer. If you can put yourself in one (or more) of the following categories, then you’re liable to love Noble Rot and should probably buy it as soon as possible:
a) You love you some Bordeaux wine
b) You prefer your history shaken, & with a twist of gossip
c) You are in the wine industry.
Otherwise, you may enjoy it as a decent read – or you may wonder what all the fuss is about and why Echikson is spending so much time dealing with stuffy old EU nobles fighting each other over stylistic differences and the merits of class. “Just pass the damn Le Pin already!” you may find yourself shouting. So, I hesitate to recommend this book to the casual wine aficionado – there are more accessible (and equally interesting) reads out there for the budding wine lover.
I struggled to understand the best audience to appreciate what the book has to offer.
Lur Saluces (who heads Yquem) has said that “Yquem basically belongs to those whom love it and no matter from whence they come… it belongs to its admirers.”
In other words, it’s not for everybody. And neither is Noble Rot.
(images: amazon.com, antique-wine.com, och.free.fr)
(images: allposters.com, ladv.org, vroma.org)
The following is a guest post from Jason Whiteside. Jason was previously a Sommelier & Wine Consultant on the Dutch/French Island of St. Martin, and was the original Wine Director of Cosimo Wine Bar in Malvern, PA. He is part of the Wine Educator staff at ChaddsFord Winery, and holds the Level 3 Advanced Certificate in Wine & Spirits (with Distinction) from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. He is a member of the Society of Wine Educators, holding their Certified Specialist of Wine qualification. Most importantly, he is my partner in crime over at 2WineDudes!
Lloyd Flatt’s Last Party
On February 22nd, a memorial party was held to celebrate the life of Lloyd Flatt. He was a very successful aerospace designer/consultant, and at one time had one of the largest wine collections in the world. His cellar and his wine buying strategies were the subject of an article in Wine Spectator. The wine parties he hosted were legendary, like the tasting of 115 different years of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, starting with the 1784 vintage. The wine world lost a major player and a great man when he passed away on January 29th.
I am by no means trying to write his obituary. One was published in Wine Spectator Online, and you can read it here if you would like. I never had the pleasure of knowing the man, never attended any of his lavish parties, except for the very last one that was held in his honor.
A friend of his family asked if I would help pour wine at his memorial party, held at the Belle Haven Country club in Alexandria, VA I was honored to be asked and I quickly agreed. My role was simple enough; I would be pouring wine for 200 guests, from special Imperial bottles (6 liters, or equivalent to 8 standard bottles) from Mr. Flatt’s extraordinary and world famous collection…
Serving wine from bottles of that size and with considerable age presents its own set of challenges. The bottles are heavy and cumbersome, they have oversized, aged corks (which are every bit as finicky as regular-sized, old corks), and these wines were full of sediment. Days before the party I felt anxiety creep over me; I had been entrusted with some extraordinarily valuable wine and I wanted the service to go perfectly. I called on a friend, Melissa Monosoff, DWS, the newly appointed Sommelier for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, who supported me with guidance and reassurance. Then the big evening arrived.
The first wine of the night was the famed second growth, Chateau Gruaud-Larose, from 1979. The wine was delicate, and had an elegant perfume, though I couldn’t help but think it was slightly on the decline. The second wine was a Pomerol, a 1994 L’Eglise Clinet. Wine in large format bottles age more slowly than wine in standard bottles, and this wine was still had the tannic tightness of youth. Over time, it softened a bit, revealing a concentrated nose of red fruits, but I couldn’t help thinking that this wine was opened slightly ahead of it’s time.
“Early on, this was the best Bordeaux I have ever tasted.”
The really famous wines were served next. 1981 Lafite-Rothschild was pure Burgundy-like finesse; red currants, sour cherries, and powdered minerals exploded out of the glass, the acidity was refreshing and pure and the finish seemed to go on for moments. Next was the 1981 Mouton-Rothschild. This was the first cork to give me serious trouble. The worm of my corkscrew pulled straight through the crumbly middle, without the cork moving at all. I saved myself with an ‘Ah-so’ opener, and all was well. In my opinion, this was the wine of the night. This wine was fully developed, yet it still had a powerful concentration of fruit, spiced up by secondary aromas of cedar, leather, and sandalwood. If there was a downside to this wine, it was only that it seemed to fade a little faster than the others. But early on, this was the best Bordeaux I have ever tasted.
Next was a famous Third Growth from Margaux, Chateaux Palmer 1981. At this point in the evening there was a large crowd around me, and the Palmer cork refused to cooperate. It was a planked cork, which meant it was actually three separate pieces of cork bonded together to make one large piece, and it didn’t hold up. Countless guests watched as this ‘wine expert’ they brought in especially for the party pulverized the brittle cork. Ultimately, I did extract the largest remaining piece with my trusted ‘Ah-so,’ to a small applause. Many people called this as the wine of the night (although I think these people just waited too long to try the Mouton). It possessed the elegance of the Lafite, along with a sweet spice and cherry fruitiness, like red licorice. It was certainly my second favorite wine of the evening.
Lastly, we returned from where we had started: back to Chateau Gruaud-Larose, although this time the vintage was 1989. Much more youthful than the ’79 we started with, I found this wine to be still developing. It was in a strange phase, at once enjoyable to drink but somehow slightly disjointed. If you own an Imperial of ’89 Cht. Gruaud-Larose, I’d suggest giving it another 5 years or so before you open it.
“If somehow I represent a new generation of oenophile (with point scores, the internet, and countless books at our disposal), then I feel very privileged to have participated in celebrating the life of a man who was in a class of his own in a different generation.”
The official party ended around 8PM. There were more wines from the collection that were going to be tasted at an after-party in a suite at a nearby hotel. I was invited to go, and part of me wanted to (they were opening a Methuselah of Montrachet, among others), but I chose not to. This man’s family and friends were as much grieving as they were celebrating, and even though his son had invited me to the after-party, I still felt like too much of an outsider to attend.
I felt the need to write this down, as it will probably always stand out in my life’s lists of awe-inspiring wine events. Both the wines I got to try and the stories I heard bridged me to a different time; a time in which people threw top-hat parties and danced to bands and sipped on the finest wines in the world. If somehow I represent a new generation of oenophile (with point scores, the internet, and countless books at our disposal), then I feel very privileged to have participated in celebrating the life of a man who was in a class of his own in a different generation. He collected wine the hard way, using his own palate and judgment, and by all accounts he shared his collection graciously. I feel privileged to have brushed up against his life, even though he was already gone.
(images: delawaretoday.com, gophila.com, vinology.com, newdaleville.com)
“It is my life’s work to identify and bring out colors, smells and flavors that not only typify my region but are also delicious.” – Eric Miller, Chaddsford Winery
A few months ago, I started a mini-series of posts about how to become a ‘wine geek’ (see Part I and Part II for more background). This post is the (long overdue) third installment of that series.
The ultimate wine geek is probably the winemaker – what budding wine geek hasn’t (at least for a minute or two) entertained the thought of growing their own grapes, and making and selling their own wine?
I went to the source to get an insight into what it’s like to run your own winemaking operation. Following is a short interview with winemaker Eric Miller, proprietor of PA’s most celebrated winery, Chaddsford.
I asked Eric to reflect on winemaking after celebrating Chaddsford’s 25th year. The result is a fascinating look into what it really takes – passion, know-how, and a fair amount of luck – to make and sell your own wine…
From the point of view of an experienced Winemaker: what resources do you feel give wine lovers the most ‘bang for their buck’ as beginners just exploring wine, and then as more experienced wine consumers?
The best resources for a new wine drinker: avoid tight-assed views stuck on old world rules and regs. I teach a twice annual class on what wines taste like, the words to describe them with an international selction under the primary headings of: light fresh fruity dry (white annd red), light fresh fruity sweet (iIonly show a white), med to full body dry white, med to full body red usually a cab, pinot, syrah or shiraz, and a fortified sweet red like lbv porto.
My suggestion would be to get the terms down in an environment like that. If that is not available just go to the myriad of shops that do tastings and begin to get vocabulary in tune with taste. If that is not available throw a series of parties and have a hell of a range of wines for friends and you to taste. The important thing is to taste like a banshee.
“There are few printed publications or blogs that are tuned to the beginning wine drinker, unless you want to begin with prejudice or excess info.”
Or if the new-be is really bold go as close to the source as you can. Winelovers like me will talk eagerly to someone truely interested. (you get a dozen newbes together and iI will speak). There are few printed publications or blogs that are tuned to the beginning wine drinker, unless you want to begin with prejudice or excess info.
What are the most essential resources for you as a Winemaker (excluding your own know-how and expertise)? I.e., the top 3 or 5 resources that you could not live without, and to which you find yourself returning on a regular basis?
What I do to learn is to formulate questions. That is so hard. Then what I do is put it on paper, see how it looks and put together a budget. Then I contact industry friends to see who is working on those topics and send my agenda. When the serious know someone is serious he or she will find time to chat.
To learn about the restaurant industry I read “restaurant wine review”. To learn about production I scan “practical winemaker”, “the american society of enology and viticulture” and “vineyard and winery management”. To understand what it means I make a date with our enologist and she gets excited or answers and shuts me down. Or I call our state viticulturalist, and he either answers me or sends me on down the line. It is never easy.
After 25+ years of successful winemaking, what advice would you give to wine lovers that want to expand their knowledge of wine? What advice would you give to those that may want to someday enter the wine trade?
I do not have 25 years of succesful winemaking. I have 25 years of trials and some successes. I would say to those who want to learn wine to make the hard decisions about what they want: is it sales or production? One needs to know a bit about either but the disciplines require a life time to get good at. Especially in this varying east coast climate.
“Climate trumps all but judgment.”
Here we are faced with climate change for most vintages and to produce wines typical of the region (and not colored by infections) the first critical thing is to know the effects of site, soil and climate on the development of non-terroir affectations. Climate trumps all but judgment. Being an east coast winemaker today is a commitment to research. I need to be bled dry of information by someone with a depth of technical understanding of the chemistry of our soils, the effects of our climate on what the vine uptakes and how a vineyard should be established so controls are limited. I have limited interest in how to sell. My simple mind says that in today’s world of wines we have simple divisions. Superstars that have cult status to carry them, mass marketed products and regional wines with only local interest to carry them.
The future of a successful marketer is to move a lot of wine off the shelf. That’s a matter of money and marketing. My future is as a local product with regional identity. It is my life’s work to identify and bring out colors, smells and flavors that not only typify my region but are also delicious.
In the course of time I have made wines that a) do not taste like California wines or are from California, Australia, Italy or cost less than 12 bucks a bottle and so are rejected by a significant number of wine drinkers b) suck and I will never be forgiven or tried again c) are exemplary examples of this region and fit the wine-model of only the most broad-minded or uninitiated wine drinker.
“Any good winemaker, if you want my recommendations for someone thinking of getting into the biz, has gotta love delayed gratification. Be bold. And never, never, never, never never, never quit.“
What that means to those who want to sell wine might be to avoid anything that is new and not-yet-established. Or it might mean that those who see the next big thing will become recognized clairvoyants. How can i make recommendations?
I have been revising my thinking about how best to handle tannins and acidity and fruit character in terms of soil amendments and cultural practices and pressing and timing of malo-lactic fermentations and frankly my attention is gravitating to ’08 and ’09 releases and analysis of tissue and soils from this growing season in terms of the ’08 vintage.
Any good east coast winemaker, if you want my recommendations for someone thinking of getting into the biz, has gotta love delayed gratification. Be bold. Find other winemakers who will talk and keep on trying. And to quote my new friend, Patrick Feury, and Winston Churchill – never, never, never, (Churchill has a tommy gun in this photo) never never, never quit.
How about you ask me the same questions in 10 years?