The Rule of Good Bones
By Matt Kramer, columnist
In nearly every wine tasting class I've taught -- even the so-called "advanced" ones -- I always had to remind the group not to pay so much attention to the taste. This, on the face of it, seems absurd. I mean, it's a wine tasting class, right? Wrong.
What I was running -- whether anyone knew it or not -- was a wine judging class. Mere tasting is just that: simple reaction. It's passive. Real wine tasting, if you will, is investigatory. It doesn't take "yes" for an answer. Let me give you an example.
We've all seen glossy home-decorating magazines where they have those "before and after" photos. You know the drill. First, there's a photo of some dump of a room that looks like one of your old college dorms. Then there's the "after" photo, which shows what Good Taste can do.
Most folks are wowed because, well, it's an eyeful. The room is filled to the rafters with stuff; the walls are glazed with umpteen coats of fancy paint; and there's always a just-so piece the decorator found in the Paris flea market (cost: $6,500) that the accompanying text always calls the "focal point" of the room.
The pros, however, are not fooled.
You know why? Because they never really look at the decorating. They're never actually "tasting." Instead, they immediately go past the nonstop stuff and get to what's important: namely, what kind of "bones" does the room have? Does it have high ceilings? (That's good.) Big windows? (Very good). Above all, what are the proportions?
As a decorator friend once said to me, "The better the bones, the less you need to do. Anybody can make a room look beautiful that has a stunning fireplace, 12-foot ceilings and wonderful windows looking out onto, say, Central Park." It's the same with wine. Of course you're going to like a good vintage of La Tâche. Talk about a (wine) room with a view! The flavor just pours out of the glass. But, believe it or not, flavor is not what makes La Tâche a great red Burgundy. You know the reason: It's dem bones.
It's not taste alone that you should be judging. Instead, you've got to look past it, at least in the judging phase, to determine whether what you're getting is something really built-in or just "decoration," such as new oak. This is not as much fun as just rolling around in the catnip, which is why so many tasters don't do it. But if you really want to understand wine, it's essential.
What's more, it's the only way to beat the system. Too many of today's priciest wines are "decorated" with lavish amounts of new oak and a glitzy fruitiness. And it works, too. Buyers are lining up for such wines, wowed by sheer lavishness. Sound familiar?
But they never think about the "bones." Does the wine have an invigorating acidity? (Usually not.) Is the fruit really distinctive, even idiosyncratic, or is it just palate-popping intense? (Guess which.) Above all, does it have the structure that allows a wine to evolve?
When you start asking these questions, you'll find yourself choosing wines that are far more magnificent than their prices or their labels. Recently, for example, I hauled out a 10-year-old Sauvignon Blanc from California's Renaissance Vineyard & Winery. It had great bones from the start, and 10 years later the wine was superb. The original cost? Maybe six bucks. The latest release is about 10 bucks -- and it's even better.
The "rule of good bones" is true for all wines everywhere. It's what separates great wines -- never mind the price -- from merely showy ones. It's why some wines from low-yielding and less-celebrated vineyard sites can be superior to big-name bottles. Indeed, the very marrow of good bones is a low yield. It gives wine true density, from the vineyard itself. Mere "extraction" is just that: winemaking manipulation.
Wines with great bones are all around us. They're in Chianti and Sicily, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Languedoc. Burgundy has unheralded villages, such as Auxey-Duresses and St.-Aubin, that have bones (and flesh) that a movie star would envy. California has a long roll call, usually involving grapes grown in places more famous for "easier" wines like Chardonnay. A wine such as Limerick Lane Zinfandel, from Sonoma's Russian River Valley, comes to mind in this category.
In short, if you really want to be a wine judge -- and a deal-spotter -- ignore the taste tinsel and go bone-deep.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)