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Can One Grape Variety Be Better Than Another?
This statement is likely to irritate a few folks, but in my opinion, one can make an argument supporting this thinking. It also plays squarely into my pet peeve in the industry – lack of focus on evaluating structure, balance and texture in wine. So, which varietals capture these characteristics better than others? Let’s tackle red varietals… Balance is definitely most affected by the winemaker, so we will drop this from consideration. Structure and texture come primarily from the fruit, making it easy to focus the discussion on these two areas. Which varietals produce the most structured, textured wines in the world?
What is Structure?
Structure is the “backbone” of the wine. It is what gives the wine an impression of being complete, or without missing components. In red wine, the components of structure are: tannins, acidity, alcohol and phenolic development. The opposite of a structured wine is a “flabby” wine, or one missing these components.
What is Texture?
Texture is more nuanced. The mouth perceives texture in ways you would not expect. For example, higher alcohol wines can appear to be heavier bodied in the mouth, but intellectually that may be hard to accept. Texture is influenced by the same components as Structure, but instead of the amount, it is more about the character of these components. With Tannins, it is about the attack of the tannins in the mouth. Are they dusty, grainy, fine, soft, mouth-filling? With Acidity, it is a yes, or no proposition. Is there enough acidity to make the mouth water? With Alcohol, it is about adding body with just enough bite to affect Structure, but not too overpowering to throw off the balance. Phenolic development is the wild card. Some varietals can develop the type of phenolics, when properly extracted during winemaking, to leave a slight coating on the interior of the mouth that is quite pleasant.
Terroir and Its Affect
As usual, Terroir factors into everything when discussing wine. In this case, making the evaluation much more difficult. Cabernet Franc dominated wines from Bordeaux and Napa come close to being included on this list, but when produced in areas like Chinon, fall far short. Malbec dominated wines from Cahors could easily qualify, but from Mendoza not so much. Merlot from Bordeaux’s Right Bank would be a shoo-in, but from Central California… ugh! Why? Because these varietals are heavily dependent on optimum terroir to express themselves properly. Another way to explain it: these are fickle varieties that must be grown in the right location and nurtured properly to produce quality wine.
Which grape varietals consistently produce the most structured, complex and textured wines in the world?
Cabernet Sauvignon – The Grand Daddy of the Noble Grape family. Produces wines like this in virtually every location it is grown.
Carignan – The unsung “lost” Bordeaux varietal. Produces great reds.
Tannat – Holy Cow! The biggest structured red on the planet!
Anglianico – One of the oldest grape varieties in the world and the least appreciated.
Syrah – I have run into a few that have been flabby, but 95% have been solidly in this category.
Nebbiolo – The quintessential structured red variety, but only when grown in Barolo and Barbaresco. The most ageable of all the red varieties.
Corvina – Doesn’t apply… might be included as Amarone. Made from grapes that are dried first, before being made into wine.
Sangiovese – Inconsistent in the Chianti regions and only reaches its fullest potential in Brunello.
Touriga Nacional – This is the Grand Papa grape of Portugal and is rarely grown anywhere else. Which is the reason it did not make the list.
Tempranillo – THE Spanish red varietal produces huge wines in Spain, but falls far short, most everywhere else it is grown.
Petit Verdot – The ultimate blending grape. This would have been a good addition to the list, BUT when bottled on its own… is almost undrinkable. I am convinced it is impossible to make a balanced Petit Verdot.
I am sure folks will want to know why this, or that varietal is missing: for example Pinot Noir. Pinot makes the most beautiful, nuanced wines in the world, but definitely not the most structured. Any others that you do not see here are either, more obscure varieties that I have not tasted, or are varieties that are too dependent on location and winemaking style to produce structured, textured wine consistently.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
A few comments from readers outside the U.S. highlighted the cultural bias I showed in this piece. So, for my readers outside the U.S., I decided to write a follow-up with that in mind…
I have written before about cultural differences and how it affects wine culture and wine jobs around the world. It is difficult to shed the result of our up-bringing. My point has always been – evaluating the quality of a wine is the same around the world, but whether it is enjoyed with or without food… or which foods pair best to local palates – are not simple questions with easy answers.
I took many cultural “liberties” in the previous piece, assuming a shared understanding. Also, I SHOULD have offered an evaluation regarding the best wine-food pairing… As a starting point, keep in mind, all four wines were essentially Bordeaux style blends, the wines were similar in profile and this style of wine pairs well generally with red meat.
When I hold a tasting of varietally similar wines like these, it definitely allows a focus on evaluating structure and balance vs. flavors/aromas. A more technical approach, but one I prefer. If you read my tasting notes, I ALWAYS discuss the structure and balance of the wine – regardless of the pairing. I tend to evaluate wines based on how well they are made vs. how much I enjoy them. This is the FIRST concept I was taught in formal Sommelier training. The French wine was BY FAR the best balanced wine at the table. So, in a tasting of similar style wines, it offered the best wine-food pairing of the four. Which wine did I enjoy the most without food? The 1993 Beringer Private Reserve.
In my opinion, this “Cultural Bias” is the biggest challenge that a wine professional can face when trying to bridge the chasm between Old and New World locations: accommodating the local wine culture. This affects every discipline in the wine industry, affecting how the wine is made, how it is marketed, serving decisions… Perhaps, this thinking explains the importance of an involved U.S. importer to a European producer.
In the U.S., it is more common to enjoy wine without food. One of the challenges I had to overcome in my training, but it also affects how I approach evaluating wine for my U.S. audience. I believe there are a few ideas differentiating wine drinkers in the U.S. from many other locations around the world:
1) A significant share of the wine consumed in the U.S. is enjoyed before, or after dinner, without food.
2) Americans are looking for a less formal and relaxed wine experience.
3) When paired with food, wine flavors should enhance food flavors, rather than just complement the flavors. Wine is not often consumed primarily to clear the palate as is common in Europe.
In closing, I was asked for a better description of the food prepared and enjoyed with the wines. So, here it is:
Beef Short Ribs – braised with a balsamic reduction for 3 hours in a pressure cooker. They were rich, meaty, and very tender.
Mac & Cheese – a uniquely American comfort food. This is an extremely rich pasta dish made with butter, cream and lots of cheese. In this case we made the pasta from scratch vs. pre-packaged.
Succotash – another uniquely American dish. A mixture of corn, butter beans (we subbed cannelloni) and okra (we subbed zucchini) in a light butter sauce with salt pork flavoring.
See a follow-up to this post at: https://coolclimatewine.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/follow-up-to-cabernet-sauvignon-blend-comparison/
Tasted Friday, December 26, 2014
I selected one each Bordeaux, Napa and Tuscan Cabernet Sauvignon blend to pair with dinner for this get-together. We invited friends over for a meal of braised beef short ribs, home-made mac & cheese with gruyere & cheddar sauce and succotash. All the wines paired extremely well with the meal served.
The Le Petit Haut Lafitte was the standout of the night. This was extremely well-balanced, with good structure and had a very pretty, refined character that spoke of a well-made wine. A mix between Old and New World with a fruit-forward palate.
The surprise of the night was the ’93 Beringer. Wow, what a great aged Napa Cab. Just an excellent bottle-aged wine. This wine was made to age well and actually has a few years left in it, if anyone has this in their cellar… it isn’t dead yet!
FLIGHT 1 – CABERNET SAUVIGNON BLENDS (4 NOTES)
All great choices and enjoyed by all!
USA, California, Napa Valley
After one hour decant. This was the most surprising wine of the night. At 21 years old this bottle was singing! The nose showed plum, blackberry, black cherry, graphite and earth. The freshness of fruit on the palate was nothing short of amazing for a ’93. The palate followed the nose with beautiful fruit. The structure was spectacular for an aged wine, with medium-high tannins, good acidity and well-integrated alcohol. Nice mid-palate of tobacco that added complexity, but the mouth-feel is what got me. The balance was good and the tannins had a great velvety texture that filled the mouth. It needed more layering of flavors and a stronger finish to move in to the exceptional category though. This wine actually has a few more years under its belt! This is my first Napa cab sauv that has stood-up well to 20 years of bottle aging.
France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
After one hour decant. This was the most spectacular wine of the evening. It was extremely well-balanced, with a refined, classically old world character… while still being fruit forward. The wine showed great QPR and is a substantial effort for a second label. Plum, blackberry, creme brulee, tobacco and earth were on the nose. The palate follows the nose. The wine is very accessible for only five years in the bottle. I would suggest your prime drinking window to be 2016-2018. I don’t believe this wine will age successfully beyond that. Everyone at the dinner agreed this was the best wine of the evening. With medium-high tannins and strong acidity the structure was spot-on. The alcohol was noticeable, but did not dominate. This contributed to a superb pairing with braised short ribs. This is the best value I have tasted from Bordeaux in a long time.
USA, California, Napa Valley
After 30 min. decant. Popped this half bottle looking to see how close this wine is to its drinking window. This needs another few more years. The nose is full of plum and rich red tomato. The palate is fruit forward with plum and blackberry moving to a hint of tomato. Nice spicy character leaning towards cinnamon and clove. The wine had medium-high tannins with very high acidity. It was slightly hot and not integrated enough yet to be well-balanced. This was definitely starting to move towards a soft mouth-feel. I enjoyed this now, but believe it will be much better when I pop the next bottle in a couple of years.
Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
After 60 min. decant. This improved with more time in the glass. Fruit on the nose was of cherry and plum with vanilla and herbal mint. The nose was too hot to really enjoy. The palate followed the nose. Medium-high tannins and high acidity for good structure, but not well-balanced. The alcohol was very noticeable. The other characteristics were a little out of kilter. I will save the next bottle for a couple of years, hoping it will come together.
I want to thank everyone for their recent comments regarding my latest post. Many of you copied me on links to other commentary about the same event from last February. My piece was more about why a trade periodical would place the topic of “cheap” wine served at the White House on a 2014 Top Ten Most Important Wine Events list. Although, working my way through the other posts (especially Dr. Vino) highlighted strong opposing viewpoints and spilled over into party politics… prompting me to share with you my greatest concern regarding the future of our country…
Shock jocks and political commentators have changed the framework for debate regarding important issues in this country and it has spilled over into every aspect of our lives. Polarized views, intolerance and failure to compromise are now the hallmark of the American Way. Our government is full of misguided politicians that believe the U.S. governing process is about catering to the extremes of each party (viewed as their core constituency), rather than the larger, more moderate middle.
I don’t know about all of you, but doesn’t it seem like this current direction is actually building apathy and resignation within the general public, NOT engaging more people in the process? The internet seems to encourage this kind of extremism on all sorts of issues, including… in this case wine? I write about wine. There couldn’t be a more varied topic, especially in relation to the diverse personal tastes that can influence opinions. There is no right, or wrong. The topic should generate discussion, NOT strong opposing viewpoints.
How Do We Change This Direction?
I wish I knew the answer. Perhaps, it is more required education in ethics, values and the arts in college curriculums? I wish I had the answer… Since when did tolerance go out of style?
I apologize for such a negative topic on such a festive occasion, but I didn’t want to leave the response to comments for after the Holidays… BTW, most of the activity on my blog originates with click-thrus from the other sites I post on. Merry Christmas everyone!
This title is quoted verbatim from the “The Drinks Business” online magazine as one of the Top Ten Most Important Wine Stories of 2014… see the whole article here:
Trade Periodicals Trashing Their Own Industry?
What is wrong with a periodical that would publish a piece like this? This is the attitude that validates the snobby reputation holding the wine industry back here in the U.S. The beer or spirits industries would never generate a piece like this…
How did you react when you read this? Personally, I started steaming out the ears… Does wine have to be expensive to be good? UGH, no of course not! The wines selected by the White House were fine. Did they need to serve Harlan Estate, Cayuse, or Bond at $200-$500/btl. to show a representative selection of U.S. wines? If The Drinks Business had done some background research, they would have found the winemakers at these wineries all to be ex-pats from France who have been successful in America. That is the more important message here. Obama hit the nail right on the head. While I may not agree with all of Obama’s politics, he does seem to demonstrate an excellent grasp of how to build a message.
Someone Had to Refute this Piece
There should have been more outrage from the industry regarding this. Please join me in sending an email to this periodical and expressing your displeasure with this kind of reporting. You can send an email to: email@example.com.
This piece not only missed the entire intent of the Obama staff and why they chose these wines, but also violated the most basic tenet of our industry: there is excellent value in wines all over the world! I am so tired of the high-brow approach to wine prices. The wine world does not revolve around premium wines from Bordeaux, France and Napa, CA only!
U.K. versus U.S.
I hope The Drinks Business does not reflect wine attitudes in the U.K. Wine should be accessible. This is especially good advice for European wine producers who want to capture more of the U.S. market. Without much exposure to the wine industry in Europe, others will have to comment on the culture there, but I can assure you in the U.S. – even the most ardent collectors are mostly down-to-earth people who enjoy a relaxed wine atmosphere, without the hype.
Domaine de Causes La Lande Cavagnac
Wine Tasting Note:
Second opportunity to taste a French Malbec from its place of origin. The best Argentine Malbecs are bigger and rounder than this, but I enjoyed the more classic approach as a counterpoint to the Argentine version… more acidity and tannins, less fruit and a lighter texture. I would recommend this as a representative example of a different style of Malbec.
30 minute decant. Deep violet tinted purple color. The nose is weak, mostly a menthol and alcohol character. Fresh blackberry on the attack disappearing quickly and moving to black currant and tar on the mid-palate with a medium length bitter finish. I enjoyed the mouth-filling tannins and medium-high acidity. The texture started silky then quickly becomes watery. The structure was good, but the balance was off. Nevertheless, a good selection to pair with red meat and rich red sauce pastas.
Finding an Audience
I appreciate all of you that have stopped by this site in the past year, or two and found something of interest. It is difficult to feel justified as a writer, unless someone is reading your words. I can accept that committing to this direction for the blog may not have the potential to find the largest audience, but it DOES follow my passion. A trade-off that seems well-made…