It's inescapable that many of the world's greatest wines are available to us in extremely small quantities. It has always been thus, but today, as more and more wine regions make wines that challenge the classics, the sheer numbers give me pause. With more than 2 million readers, I constantly ask myself how much readers care about a wine I just tasted that rates 88 points, costs $50 and only 185 cases exist of it. The answer is, not much. But the Internet may be changing that ...
Of all the great wines on tap at last week's New York Wine Experience, the ones I keep thinking about are those presented by five individuals tagged as "Wine Stars." Effective as the usual succession of daytime tasting panels are at comparing and contrasting a series of wines, this innovation livened things up by placing a single producer and a single wine in the spotlight for 15 minutes at a time, spread through the weekend.
It was quite a lineup. Angelo Gaja poured Gaja Langhe Sperss 1999 (92 points, $220). Christian Moueix offered Château Trotanoy Pomerol 2005 (95 points, $190), Chuck Wagner offered Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Special Selection 2005 (94 points, $160), Pablo Álvarez Vega Sicilia Unico Gran Reserva 1994 (96 points, $350). Christian Seely, head of the company that owns Quinta do Noval, offered my favorite wine of the weekend, the incomparable Port Nacional 1994 (100 points, $400).
On my third and final full day in Oregon, as I barrel-tasted more and more 2010 wines of delicacy and grace that also had ripe flavors, one thought kept recurring. This is a vintage that will either polarize Pinot Noir drinkers, or perhaps bring all wings of the party together.
The divisive issue is alcohol. Some Pinot drinkers, let's call them the traditional Burgundy wing, insist that anything over 14 percent alcohol in a Pinot Noir is a sin. Others sneer at low-alcohol Pinot as insipid and flavorless.
If the wines released over the coming months are as good across the board as the ones I have tasted in top-tier cellars, we could have détente in the Pinot world.
Here are my notes on tastings of the 2010s at Argyle, Bergström, Chehalem, Domaine Serene and Ken Wright.
Day two of my sweep through Oregon sampling the 2010 vintage started with a visit with David O'Reilly at Owen Roe; at Evening Land, whence have come some of Oregon's best Chardonnays since its first vintage in 2007, I tasted barrel samples that won't be bottled until after the current harvest; the skies had darkened and it was raining hard when I arrived at my last stop of the day, St. Innocent, next to Zena Vineyard in Eola-Amity Hills.
On early reports, 2010 in Oregon looked like a washout for Pinot Noir. A long series of rain showers occurred just as the grapes were ready to pick, and there was a mad scramble at the end to get the grapes into the wineries before heavier rains in late October. Bird damage was much greater than normal, further diminishing the size of the crop.
But after tasting barrel samples and recently bottled wines in 15 Willamette Valley cellars, I can confidently predict 2010 will be a special vintage. Maybe it won't achieve the blockbuster status of 2008, but the wines show a welcome freshness and vitality along with delicacy, transparency and relatively low alcohol levels. I anticipate a lot of scores in the low- to mid-90s, at least from the better producers.
"It would be really nice," said Josh Bergström of Oregon's Bergström Wines, "if we could have a normal vintage again."
When was the last time you had one of those? I asked. "Well," he responded, "maybe someday."
The most recent vintages have tested the mettle of the state's vintners. This one, 2011, has everyone waiting on tenterhooks. It looks to be one of the latest on record. Most vineyards won't start picking until Oct. 15, two to three weeks later than usual. Vintners have one eye on the sky, hoping there won't be too much rain before the grapes are picked.
Robert Finigan, who died last Saturday, was one of the first wine people I met when I moved to San Francisco in 1977. He had already established himself as the leading U.S. wine critic for serious wine drinkers, even though he did not write for a major newspaper or magazine. Hard to remember now, before there was Wine Spectator and other wine magazines and newsletters, before people tweeted and blogged about their latest wine finds, wine critics were known for the pulpits they preached from. In other words, the newspapers or magazines were the vehicle that delivered readers. My Sunday column had a reach of more than 1 million readers because it was in the San Francisco Examiner, where I was the food and wine editor.
By coincidence or design, it's hard to tell, two Australian winemakers in back-to-back visits last week had the same points to make when I asked them about how things were going for them in regard to selling their wines in the U.S. Although they still encounter some resistance, retailers and restaurant wine buyers at least are willing to taste their products and, when they do, they have the same reaction.
"They say, ‘These don't taste like Australian wines,'" said Kym Tolley, whose Penley Estate wines from Coonawarra aims for lean textures and a narrow beam of intensity.
"These taste like European wines. I hear that a lot," said Paul Smith, winemaker at Wirra Wirra in McLaren Vale. "To me, they taste like good McLaren Vale wines, but if [buyers] like the style because it feels European to them, maybe that's a good thing. We make a lot of wines like these in Australia."