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Drinking Out Loud

Advice to a Newbie

"Which wine should I like?" she asked

Matt Kramer
Posted: July 2, 2013

Believers in biodynamics subscribe to the concept that the moon, in addition to affecting plants, also affects when wines taste good to us. They refer to a daily calendar that identifies whether a particular moment is a root day, a fruit day, a flower day or a leaf day.

Fruit and flower days, we're told, are good, as wines will be open and aromatic. Leaf days cause wines to close up; root days are the worst, as wines will offer little or no aromatics or fruitiness.

I'll leave it to you to decide how much credulity you care to invest in this sort of thing. It's based on astrological/lunar precepts, e.g., "Leo is a fire sign, and when the moon is in the constellation of a fire sign, it is a fruit day."

I find it all a bit much, to put it politely. However, there is a power to metaphors, which have their use as a kind of evocation of qualities. I mention this because I was recently beseeched by a friend who is a wine newbie to help her better understand wine.

"I know that I should drink what I like," she said. "But how do I learn what I should like?"

Now, even I, a fellow who hardly flinches when it comes to telling others what they should think, falter at saying what someone else should like.

"You know, wine is awfully personal," I stuttered, playing for time. She wasn't having it.

"You always say that some wines are better than others, she replied. "And that that quality exists independently from mere preference. So let's get down to it," she demanded. "What should I like?"

It was then that I thought of the metaphor of root days, flower days and the like. With that in mind, I submitted that there are four types of wines: Fruit Wines, Soil Wines, Climate Wines and Creativity Wines. And that she might find her path by deciding which she prefers more.

Of course, nearly all wines are amalgams of all four elements. That acknowledged, many wines—most, even—are nevertheless decisively informed by one of these four forces. For example:

Fruit Wines. As the name suggests, these are wines where the dominant force, the trump of everything else, is fruitiness. Really, what you taste in a Fruit Wine, more than anything else, is fruit intensity.

A perfect example of a Fruit Wine is pretty much any Grenache/Garnacha wine you'd care to consider. Although producers would surely beg to differ, Grenache wines, like Labrador retrievers, more resemble each other than anything else. The intensity, even exuberance, of the fruit is such that the particularities of climate or soil or even winemaking are very nearly indiscernible.

Sure, some Grenache wines are better than others. But, really, when you drink a Grenache—and this is, ironically, even more true for a good Grenache—you're hard put to say with any certainty much about the soil in which it was grown, or even all that much about climate, especially as most Grenaches are grown in warmer sites anyway. What distinguishes one Grenache from another is the depth and intensity of fruitiness.

With Fruit Wines you rarely hear invoked such terms as "layers," "finesse," "nuance" or even "acidity." Rather, it's all about opulence, intensity, succulence and approachability.

Some wines are usually Fruit Wines unless grown in very particular locations, where they can be more accurately categorized as Soil Wines. Gamay and Zinfandel are good examples. In both cases, mostly they are classic Fruit Wines.

Yet both Gamay and Zinfandel can transmogrify into Soil Wines when grown in very particular sites, such as, for Gamay, the cru zones of Beaujolais (Morgon, Fleurie, etc.), and for Zinfandel, various extremes of soil or climate in California, such as the cool parts of Russian River Valley (think Limerick Lane Zin) and Arroyo Grande (Saucelito Canyon Vineyard), or high-elevation sites such as the so-called "ridge vineyards" of Mendocino County's Anderson Valley or Napa Valley's extraordinary Sky Vineyards on the crown of Mount Veeder.

Soil Wines. When, in a single sniff and sip, you sense that the very stuff in which the vine is rooted is infused in what you're tasting, then you've got a Soil Wine. Almost invariably, Soil Wines comes from some sort of soil extreme, e.g., a lot of shale or schist or chalk. Examples abound, such as the many Soil Wines of Germany's Mosel Valley, where Riesling transmutes shale into an unmistakable flavor expression. Ditto for Mencía in Spain's slate-rich Ribeira Sacra zone.

Famously, the same magic act is performed by Chardonnay in the extreme soil of Chablis, where, as Colette lyrically put it, "Even the unemotional chalk weeps in wine, golden tears."

No nation has a monopoly on Soil Wines, as many different sorts of "extreme" soils can express themselves. The Douro in Portugal is all about a seemingly impenetrable granite and schist (they use dynamite to create terraces and even to create holes in which to plant vines).

Santa Barbara County's Sta. Rita Hills boasts Botella clay loam, and you can taste it in the Pinot Noir grown in sites lucky enough to have this soil in abundance.

Australia's Coonawarra zone southeast of Adelaide boasts its terra rossa, which is a limestone subsoil rouged with a thin layer of iron oxide–rich topsoil. Elsewhere on that continent, the Heathcote district north of Melbourne is distinguished by a narrow spine of water-retaining Cambrian subsoil that makes all the difference in that parched place. And you can taste it.

The roll call of famous Soil Wines is both lengthy and resonant, embracing the Burgundian Pinot Noir likes of Volnay Clos des Ducs (chalk) and Musigny (limestone), among dozens of other sites in the Côte d'Or.

In Italy's Piedmont region, through the Nebbiolo grape you can taste the granitic soil of Gattinara. It comes sharply into focus when compared with the Nebbiolo wines of Barolo and Barbaresco farther south, which are sited on the chalky clay soil called marl (it was once an inland sea).

Soil Wines are arguably the most memorable of all wines and certainly among the most distinctive.

Climate Wines. While all wines are influenced by climate, a sizable number of wines are emphatically defined by their climates. This is particularly true in extremes of either hot or cool. And climate strongly determines which grape varieties are most successfully grown.

What makes some wines Climate Wines may be a matter of extreme diurnal temperature differences from day to night. Many wines from Washington state, for example, are creatures of the high desert climate of eastern Washington, where summer’s blazing daytime temperatures plunge every evening. This creates striking acidity (the nighttime coolness) and strong fruitiness (the daytime heat).

Not that far away, the wines of western Oregon's Willamette Valley are, for their part, also strongly climate-influenced. Unlike eastern Washington, the Willamette Valley has long, cool springs, lingering autumns, and a gentle moderation that both teases out and locks in the berryish qualities of Pinot Noir as well as ensures a certain tenderness and unmistakable finesse. Oregon's Pinot Noirs are more creatures of climate than of soil.

California's interior Central Valley, for its part, is all about a hot growing-season climate, just as Monterey County's Salinas Valley is mostly about ocean-influenced coolness.

Very likely more wines can legitimately be called Climate Wines than any other category. Not surprisingly, Climate Wines often converge with Fruit Wines, as the former frequently serves to encourage the latter. The difference is that not all Climate Wines are also Fruit Wines, either because it's too cool to create intense fruitiness or too warm and the fruitiness "bakes out".

Creativity Wines. This surely is the most complicated and controversial category of all. Simply put, Creativity Wines are those where a considerable amount of effort—more than the usual and essential procedures necessary to make good wine—has been expended to create a wine that is as much from the imagination of the winemaker as it is a straightforward expression of site and grape.

Various terms are applied, many of them used as a condemnation, such as "manipulated," "interventionist," and the slangy jargon used by some, "spoofulated." Adherents to the so-called "natural wine" movement abhor a variety of winemaking practices that they see as distorting.

What can be said is this: Some wines are indisputably "creative.” Winemakers can (and do) pick grapes at extreme ripeness levels for their soft, almost non-existent tannins and plush flavors, make the wine, and then reduce the high alcohol level that inevitably occurs from such sugar-rich grapes by running the wine through a high-tech machine (spinning cone, reverse osmosis, etc.) to eliminate a certain percentage of alcohol.

Whether this is desirable or unacceptable depends upon your point of view—and your palate. Many other techniques are employed to "sculpt" wine. Here again, whether the use of particular enzymes, cultured yeasts, added sugar or grape concentrate, the use of "bleeding off" or vacuum concentrators (to reduce dilution), or any number of other techniques is simply too much or an ideal advance is a matter of vexed discussion.

One thing can be said: Creativity Wine, like cosmetic surgery, runs the risk of being obvious. The issue, as is so often the case, is a matter of degree. A little can be fine, even admirable, while a lot creates a wine grotesque. At what point does a wine, à la Michael Jackson, become so distorted that it no longer reflects anything except what’s been done to it?

Finally, what did I tell my friend about what she should like?

I told her to be on guard against anything she sensed might cross the line into an obvious Creativity Wine. But beyond that, she should simply enjoy her wines, trying for the sheer fun of it to decide whether it’s a Fruit Wine, a Soil Wine or a Climate Wine in her glass—or a magnificent amalgam of all three, which might be called an Ideal Wine.

Doug Jeffirs
Chicago, Ill. —  July 2, 2013 12:33pm ET
Alan Gavalya
Hampton VA USA —  July 2, 2013 2:32pm ET
Thanks Matt.
Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  July 2, 2013 5:52pm ET
Very interesting and novel classification, Mr. Kramer. Thanks for giving us yet another framework for wine evaluation. I have to try this, starting tonight.
Juan Pedro San Martin
Coral Gables ,Fl —  July 3, 2013 6:09pm ET
Sounds simple enough but it really is profoundly complicated to grasp. Excellent article.
Eric Campos
Canada —  July 5, 2013 10:13am ET
Matt, you have written about the amount of technology used in the modern production of Bordeaux to provide wines of opulence and concentration, with top chateaux being some of the earliest adopters. when this is so widespread so as to become the norm in a region, how could a newbie hope to discern that these are wines of creativity and not climate/soil?

Speaking of Creativity becoming the norm, think many would argue that (grower) Champagne's extreme manipulation does not deprive it of its ability to transmit soil or climate. to everything an exception!
Mahesh Lekkala
Livingston, NJ, USA —  July 5, 2013 9:57pm ET
Nice article. I am little intrigued by the concept of
Root, leaf, flower and fruit days.

If you have access to more info on that, please share it.

Once again interesting read
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  July 6, 2013 10:23am ET
To Mahesh Lekkala: Glad you liked the column. As for additional information about the biodynamic concept of root days, flower days, etc., a variety of Web sites exist that can fill you in on this. I can’t say that I know of one in particular is singularly more outstanding than the others. I’d suggest that you simply Google “Biodynamic calendar 2013”. You’ll quickly see that all sorts of sites pop up with the sort of information you’re seeking.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  July 6, 2013 7:02pm ET
Mr. Campos: You bring up two excellent points. You are indeed correct that I have written about the “technology used in the modern production of Bordeaux to provide wines of opulence and concentration, with top chateaux being some of the earliest adopters.”

Your point regarding how a newbie could know about whether these are Creativity Wines when the use of technology such as vacuum concentrators and reverse osmosis machines is now so widespread among the classed growths is spot on. The question, as I noted in the column, is a matter of degree.

That the style of the most famous red Bordeaux has changed since the 1980s is indisputable. But whether this change is a distortion of character and substance is the key question. Is Chateau Latour any less profound today than it was several decades ago? Or Chateau Haut-Brion?

The real question about so-called “manipulation” is whether it distorts fundamental character. I’ll leave it to you and others to make your own judgments. Earlier this week I had the opportunity to taste a well-cellared magnum of 1966 Chateau Cheval Blanc. I would have to say that the modern vintages of this same wine appear to deliver the same depth of character as this 47-year old version.

Whether it will age as long or as well as that 1966 vintage only time will tell. But ageability isn’t the issue. Rather, it’s a matter of character and profundity.

That said, I do believe that a certain number of red Bordeaux have indeed become disturbingly distorted, losing character and individuality in the process of seeking a greater richness and suppleness. There’s no question, at least in my mind, that we’re seeing less individuality in red Bordeaux today than we did several decades ago.

This is the two-edged thing about technology: It can serve to amplify without distorting. Or, like bad cosmetic surgery, it can create a grotesque. For what it’s worth, it seems better to me (for both wine and humans) to approach such modification with extreme caution.

As for your point about French Champagne, here that word “manipulation” serves less to define than to editorialize. Some people both prefer and admire blended wines, whiles others (and yes, I’m among them) seek a more pinpoint savor of site.

Are French Champagnes “manipulated” (in the pejorative sense of that word) because they see two fermentations and are a blend of numerous vineyard sites? Hardly.

Are they Creativity Wines? Compared to grower Champagnes that emphasize a very particular savor of site, I would suggest that they are, especially, as you point out, compared to the Soil Wines of grower Champagnes.

But this creativity is not necessarily undesirable. Is anything being distorted? Are the blended Champagnes—at least the good ones--devoid of character? I don’t think so. The best ones are brilliant. It’s just a different sort of achievement.

Thanks for your (good) thoughts.
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  July 13, 2013 6:49am ET
As Yogi Berra might have said to your friend, "You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you are going, because you might not get there."
I enjoyed your essay very much.. it is one I will keep, to help me get there!

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