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Getting It Backward

Are we bogging down in prerequisites for wine?
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 18, 2012 6:14pm ET

Much of the wine world has become preoccupied with staking out their own definitions of what wine must be before they will even consider it. They are missing out.

Some insist that a wine contain no more than this much alcohol. There better be no hint of oak character in the flavor profile. And if the wine lacks a jolt of acidity, it's right out. Paradoxically, some of the same folks who espouse these prerequisites (including many of those touting "natural wines") dismiss rich fruit character as simple and salivate over savory notes, even if those come by way of funky organisms such as brettanomyces and volatile acidity.

I am not singling out the natural wine crowd, which so far represents a tiny if vocal minority of wine drinkers. My sympathies go to anyone who subjects wine to derision if it does not conform to any narrow profile. I reject the idea that any one style can always be better than another. My tastes run to both low alcohol and high alcohol wines, as long they achieve a pleasing balance. Acidity is fine with me, as long it keeps its feet in bounds. I don't mind oak character as long as I can taste more than that in the wine.

Blind tasting has taught me that wines are not always what we expect them to be from their reputations. Wine will surprise us. True, when the bags come off, the label often confirms the reputation. But one in four will defy the odds—in either direction, better or worse—that fascinates me the most.

Wines can seem clumsy even though they say 12.8 percent alcohol on the label, while the labels on those that feel deft and sleek can reveal that they contain 15.5 percent. A $12 wine can pack more character into every sip than the $75 bottle next to it. The wine from a giant multinational wine company can show greater harmony and depth than the one from a small estate that farms biodynamically.

When I visit the regions I write about, I base who to see on whether their wines stand out in my own blind tastings. The wines that show more finesse than their peers, greater depth of flavor, real personality, a definable style and consistent high quality make me want to explore who made them and how they do it. The story follows the wine. It's not the other way around.

What they made is more important than how they made it. That may become my new mantra.

Singapore —  December 19, 2012 12:23am ET
Harvey - prerequisites are great, for things like training classes. And, I think there is one prerequisite for tasting wines - an open mind. Anything else, and you are limiting yourself to a small piece of a very large world when it comes to trying wines, be they from an unknown or well known producer.
Jeffrey D Travis
Sarasota, FL —  December 19, 2012 10:07am ET
A very nice blog Harvey. It brings common sense and balance to a sometimes fragmented set of self- imposed standards. I am on board up until the last sentence. I know what you mean, however, I would not want to say, for example, adding a tad of juice from Bordeaux to a wine from Burgundy matters not.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  December 19, 2012 11:47am ET
Jeffrey, thanks for the kind words. As for blending a tad of Bordeaux into Burgundy, France legally prohibits that. I have tasted the occasional Pinot Noir-Cabernet blend from New World regions, but they never were much to talk about. In my mind the only way that might work is in a rosé.
Kurt Lyttle
Aurora, in, usa —  December 26, 2012 7:55pm ET
I purchased a case of Deakin Shiraz Victoria 2010 you scored 89 points. Shiraz has been my favorite for 20 years and I followed your lead during this time. But these 12 bottles of Deakin I bought would fit in the 83 - 85 score at best. Very unhappy....... Kurt
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  December 26, 2012 8:12pm ET
Kurt, help me out here. Did the wine fit the description in my tasting note? Deakin Shiraz is a lighter-style, $7 wine. If it doesn't have the freshness and liveliness, the case might have been heat damaged in shipment. If so the store should replace it.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Whitesville, KY —  January 2, 2013 1:57pm ET
Is this a paid add for mega-Purple? How about a bit of syrah in your pinot to add color and depth, one has 24+% to work with in the US. How about ripening the wines to 33 brix, thus yielding 17% alc, and watering back to taste? While I overall agree with Harvey's comments, I do believe there should be limits to what is and is not added to or done to, wines just to obtain that perceived good taste.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  January 2, 2013 2:22pm ET
Wow, Sandy. You found a lot more here than was intended.

All those practices you described (Mega-Purple, Syrah in Pinot Noir, watering back for overripe grapes) have fallen out of favor because they usually make wines that were recognized as unbalanced. What matters is that the wines were not what they should be.

Watering back, for example, improved many Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs in 2006 and 2009. In those vintages hot weather at harvest dried out the grapes and make for sugar-rich juice. Perfect? No. Better? Oh my yes.

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