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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Who needs the Yankees?
Especially when you've got Finger Lakes Riesling to be proud of! A recent NY Times article covered an annual contest of top New York wines as Hermann J. Wiemer's 2005 Dry Riesling was lauded as the best in show. This region, pioneered by Dr. Konstantin Frank's first vinifera plantings in the early 1950's, is just beginning to receive global recognition. The Finger Lakes region, which started out as a haven for jug swirl and sweet labrusca craving plonk guzzlers, has blossomed to become acknowledged as the United States prime riesling site. Comparisons to Germany's Mosel River Valley frequently arise in the sewing circles of local critics, winemakers and aficionados. The promise for potential world class riesling has not only paved the way for the New York faithful to share a sense of pride, but strengthened the state's resolve in becoming a destination for food and wine. The New York Wine and Culinary Center, which was just recently opened in Canandaigua (in the Finger Lakes), will serve as the proverbial headquarters for tasting and educating all things New York. It is my hope that this not only encourages New Yorkers and Americans alike to acknowledge the potential of the Lakes terroir, but also that of the riesling grape in general. For a country that thrives on surplus and size, the days of monstrous, alcoholic fruit bombs from the west coast have not only become tiresome, but impractical. Our oversized bellies could certainly benefit from a splash of positive European cultural traits, such as balance and harmony. There is no better wine to pair with a broader range of cuisine than that of a bracingly fresh riesling. While alcoholic cabernets can play the role of ketchup by robbing the foods flavor instead of enhancing it, riesling provides an ideal supplementary role w/ it's racy attributes that some Americans are starting to appreciate. Up until a few short years ago it would have been heresy to think of coupling an appetizer w/ anything but a riesling from Alsace or Germany. Perhaps American born rieslings can introduce a much needed European concept of dining to our homeland. Our palates will thank you.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The great globalization debate
Is wine all around the world becoming homogenized? Has pressure from wine critics, consumer tastes and flavor fads caused producers to try to create a similar product? First, I must briefly elaborate on the position of globalization and where the belief stems from.

  1. The most influential wine critic of the world, Robert Parker, has the power to make or break a wine estate. The wine consuming public places an enormous amount of stock in his palate. If he scores a wine 90 points and above, there is a positive correlation to sales and price that the particular estate can fetch. With wine makers at the whim of his critique, they know that their business will benefit exponentially from a positive Parker review.
  2. New oak barrels. Yes you heard right, wood. The casks in which a wine is stored in before bottling serves as a temporary aging vessel that can either be neutral, or can add additional dimensions to the wine. The element that causes tension to arise in the globalization controversy lies in the new oak barrels, specifically small 60 gallon barrels (the smaller the barrel, the more influence over the wines flavor).
  3. The objective defining features of 'wine quality.' Ripe fruit, along with balance and concentration in wine making.

I am sure there is a sprinkling of other arguments behind the globalization camp, but I believe those three cover the basis for their feelings and fears. I will quickly address each major issue w/ my humble opinion of general disagreement, and I encourage you to draw your own conclusions in response.

In regards to Robert Parker, no one could deny his consumer influence. He has always proclaimed himself as a consumer advocate and has always acted in an independent fashion. Sponsors need not apply, as he's had none of that, and that immediately provides a foundation of credibility. Parker's reputation was made during the controversial 1982 vintage in Bordeaux. '82 was atypically warm and produced a set of abundantly ripe fruit, which was immediately dismissed by the Bordelais as 'incapable of aging' and several wine critics cautioned that the wines had to be drunk w/in a few years before they would wither away and die. Parker lauded the vintage as one of Bordeaux's best since 1961, and this statement of defiance against the consensus opinion began to disrupt the 'Bordeaux system.' 25 years later, as the wines of ’82 are still drinking incredibly well, we can simply sit back and say he was right and they were wrong (and goodness how those wines have gotten expensive!). So, this ex-lawyer from Monkton, Maryland, has certainly shaken up the world of French wines, and wine on a global scale as well. Is he an intimidating figure to the heralded Chateaux of France? Absolutely, but does his opinion cause wine production to create a similar, global juice to suit his tastes? Not in the slightest. Even if homogeneity was his goal, which it isn't, it is simply not possible to make a merlot from Pomerol taste like a merlot from Napa Valley. Using this example, how can one convert different merlot grapes that come from different clones that are planted to different rootstocks at different hillside slope angles (or on flat terrain) with different micro-climates under different soil types (not to mention different vine ages), to wines that are essentially the same? If I could answer that question, I might believe that Robert Parker caused wine to become a globalized product, but obviously I can't.

Now for the all popular issue of oak. Oak is the winemaker’s tool that allows his two cents to be put into the equation. Oak can be used in a fashion that is modest, as if to sprinkle some salt onto your steak at dinner in the hopes of enhancing the flavor. Oak can be used judiciously by the winemaker, perhaps to cover up the feeble fruit underneath, or just because the winemaker in question is a flamboyant guy that enjoys his wine's to have the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Oh yes, oak can be avoided all together. Two appropriate examples are; German riesling, which is typically fermented in stainless steel and then travels straight to the bottle, or a wine from the Chateauneuf du Pape of the Southern Rhone, which typically undergoes it's aging in large cement foudres. A spot on model of the ranging oak saga is beautifully displayed by Fiddlehead cellars, as they offer 4 separate sauvignon blanc alternatives that either receive no oak, some oak, no secondary fermentation or a near complete secondary fermentation. Pretty democratic of them, don't yah think?

I'd like to think I proved my point. I'm not here to debate whether or not oak is a soulless form of make-up that is liberally applied to an ugly girl, or a lovely splice of complexity to a balanced wine. This isn’t an argument over invasive American oak and subtle French oak. This is a statement that oak is not globally used, and its use does not a homogenized wine make.

Lastly, the objective definition of a wine’s quality has lead several opinion leaders to believe that wine has become a globalized product. Out of the definition that consists the terms: balance and concentration, I have chosen to italicize concentration aptly. The terms rich, fat, generous, opulent, etc. all hint at this concentration ideal, basically meaning devoid of excess water and full of flavor. This definition is particularly dangerous to cooler climates like Burgundy and Bordeaux, that often struggle to ripen their fruit set completely. In order to circumvent these issues of dilution, producers have various techniques at their disposal (when legally approved, of course). There are a slew of methods enologists can use, including: crop reduction, late harvesting, encouraging botrytis (a ‘noble rot’ that causes grapes to shrivel on the vine), freezing the grapes, using de-humidifying techniques, saignée (bleeding excess juices pressed from grape skins), and there is a handful of modern, controversial technologies such as reverse osmosis and vacuum evaporation that lead to more concentrated juice. Some of these methods naturally occur in particular climates, others are manipulated mechanically. Irrespective of the practice used, everyone wants concentration in their wines. Critics, consumers, and the majority of wine makers will go to painstaking lengths to achieve fat and fleshy end products. Let’s say mother nature isn’t ideal to a particular domain in Northern Rhone that cultivates syrah grapes, but the winemaker is able to improvise accordingly to concentrate his selection, does that mean his syrah will taste similar to the ripe fruit laden Barossa Valley shiraz of the same vintage that had a bit better luck w/ the weather? Absolutely not. The rationale for harvesting ripe fruit isn’t to create a similar New World friendly fruit bomb. The reason lays w/in a universal goal of any respected winemaker, and that goal is to express his ‘terroir.’ Terroir is a French term that loosely translates to specific characteristics of place. The beauty of great wine is that particular varietals have different expressions from different places. How else can a specific block of pinot noir from Charmes Chambertin, Burgundy, have a dramatically different profile from a neighboring block only an acre away in the same vineyard? It’s the soils, the age of the vines, the clonal selection, the microclimates, the….terroir. At its best, ripe and concentrated fruit will help ultimately express the wine’s particular terroir. At its worst, concentrating crap will yield concentrated crap.

With regards to globalization, I do believe that there is a consistent set of vineyard practices that quality minded producers use in order to coax their best rendition of wine from their particular vine. As far as these practices creating identical products throughout the world, I don’t care how much (or how little) oak is used, what score Robert Parker gave it, or how concentrated the fruit is. If the 3 aforementioned components are equal, the wine will still be distinctly unique because of its terroir, and that’s what makes it a truly special entity….even if Parker did only give it 82 points.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

You never get a second chance to make a first impression
Or do you? In case it hasn't been clearly stated yet, I have an unhealthy relationship w/ wine. At times my obsession borders on bipolar, wandering into the depths of a blackened liver on the inside and a quasi pretentious philosophy on the outside. Needless to say, the bottle can easily make or break my evening out, and it has done so on numerous occasions. The ceremonious popping of the cork brings a medley of anticipation to my salivating lips, as well as an apprehension of disappointment. I find myself on a proverbial teeter totter of emotion, swaying from side to side in the hopes that the fermented grape juice will rise to the heights of spectacular and allow me to dazzle on high for the remainder of the evening....
Having said that, I have a success story to share. Yesterday evening at the Capital Grille, adjacent to Grand Central Station in the midst of boisterous Midtown Manhattan's commuter section, I was the lucky beneficiary of an unheralded gem from Yamhill County Oregon. The grape in question, Pinot Noir, personifies my chaotic 'fight or flight' relationship w/ wine. At its best, it is sex in a glass, provoking mind numbing sales from hooked patrons at Christies Auction house w/ gavels slamming down to the tune of tens of thousands for a rare Burgundy bottle. At its worst, a level in which the fickle grape unfortunately tumbles to on countless occasions, pinot can resemble thin weeds sprouting from a soiled barnyard on a musty afternoon in Middle America. So I was, needless to say, a bit jumpy as the waitress poured Patricia Green's 2003 "Four Winds" rendition of Pinot Noir. The second my nostrils plunged into the oozing elixir, I was seduced as I had never been before. Imagine a suede leather couch, painted w/ crushed cherry cordial and raspberry jam, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Instantaneous notes of clove covered blueberries danced down my throat, to a song of currant leaves with a fresh breath carrying along the finish for nearly a minute. The wine's heavy and opulent presence was able to tiptoe, without wearing heavy shoes (a feat that is extremely difficult to ascertain, I might add). Yes, I was hooked at first sight. No need to decant, no need to breathe, no need to worry about what else to order. The gazpacho salad with heaping chunks of crab meat (which was delicious, by the way) was a complete afterthought as an appetizer. I could have been munching on the acid from a dead rhino and it would have been pleasing all the same. My night was made.
Of course there is a flipside to this coin. I am choosing to cite an entirely different example using the 2000 Tenuta Del Terriccio Tassinaia (a Super Tuscan blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese). First off, 2000 was somewhat of an off vintage for Tuscany. It was by no means a wash-out, but not the most inspiring. I made this selection based upon the fact that it was half the price of its 1999 sibling (a much more touted Italian vintage across the board). So my expectations are at a lower level of course, not anticipating anything better than an average quaff for a cozy dinner at home on a lazy Sunday evening. Considering my less than lofty hopes for the bottle, my attention shifted towards my fiancé’s spot on cooking. She performed a clever rendition of a pasta dish coupled w/ turkey sausage, kalamata olives, tomato puree and feta on the side (in her cunning, Turkish style as always). I neglected to perform my usual rituals as I popped the cork, making way for a hasty pour and attempting to focus my passions elsewhere. Perhaps my bias took over as I sunk my nose in the glass like a dog surveying the backyard for something interesting to munch on. The more I sniffed, the less I got. The wine seemed backward and reduced (meaning there hasn't been enough time and oxygen to unlock the wine's primary aromas), only giving slight hints of mineral infused earth through the nose. Instead of patiently decanting, I shrugged my shoulders and focused on the food. I distinctly remember pouting my way through the evening like a bratty 5 year old boy that was forced to eat mommy’s yucky veggies instead of watching the beloved Sponge Bob Square Pants show. I do have a tendency to act spoiled when it comes to my unhealthy wine obsession and I have probably allowed several otherwise enjoyable evenings to go to waste, sulking in the corner w/ disappointment from a bottle that was not up to snuff.
As for the fate of the bottle, we sloshed down a glass or two w/ our lovely meal and put the Tassinaia to rest for the evening. I was tempted to perform my typical guerilla tactic of tossing the remaining wine down the drain as if it were a funeral service, but my financially conscious (and more sensible) fiancé scolded my lethal hands away from the murderous act. The next day, a humdrum Monday evening usually reserved for malted hops, we chose to give the young Tuscan a second go around. I usually have tremendous bias when tasting a wine after 24 plus hours of being opened. Once I have tried a wine in a 'fresher state,' I am quick to notice it's flattening decline and tiresome fruit on subsequent days of tasting (palate sensitivity or me simply acting like the spoiled wine brat that I am?) Anyhow, bottoms up....
What's this I smell? Much more profound, vibrant aromas of grilled meat and rustic blackberries jumped right out of the glass. The wine's textural properties had unwound and black currant, liquid minerals and smoky oak glided across my tongue like satin sheets as it built up into a powerful, firm crescendo w/ it's plush tannin structure. I smiled in disbelief as I realized that we foolishly drank this wine far too early. Iron clad structure of that pedigree needs much more time in the bottle to truly strut its stuff.
Despite its cheaper price tag and 'off-vintage' stigma, the '00 Tassinaia is a true gem that demands patient care. A wine that was endowed w/ every element possible to make my evening, broke it instead, because I didn't give it the respect and credit it deserved. Apparently wine is unique in its ability to shine in its second chance of making a first impression.