Monday, October 22, 2007


I receive a lot of wine samples in this job, which to most people would be like manna from Heaven. I mean, come on, we're talking free booze here! But what they don't realize is that you have to kiss a lot of frogs (no pun intended towards my French wineries and friends) to find the prince among them. And believe me, there are a lot of frogs out there...

My palate shudders to recall all the awful bottles I encounter every week: too sweet (either from over-ripe fruit or through the addition of authorized amounts of sugar, a process known as Chaptalization), over-oaked (a particular pet-peeve of mine, leading to the intrusive smell and taste of, well, wood, vanilla, chocolate, roasted coffee and some spicyness - my reactions to this range from a frown to a full-blown epilectic fit of disgust), over extraction (meaning too much fruit, which defines the old adage that too much of a good thing is a bad thing), not enough fruit (leading to green, almost weedy notes in the wine), alcohol out of balance (this gives you that hot sensation on the palate), too tannic (the winemaker let the grapes macerate with the stems and grape pips for too long), etc... The list goes on and on. Of course, one needs the right type of soil, but that's out of the hands of the winemaker. All he can do is work with what Mother Nature gives him. Sadly, it's very easy to make bad wine.

To my palate, at least, wines from the New World (CA, Australia especially) tend to show many of these faults. The warm weather makes the grapes super ripe, and the winemakers seek to extract as much fruit as possible, leading to almost jammy, sweet fruit and thick mouthfeels. In an effort to mitigate all this fruit, they then put the wine in brand new, heavily-toasted oak barrels, leading to all those flavors that I seem allergic to. To me, this is a recipe for vinous disaster. Of course, everyone's palate is different, so what I dislike is Heaven to others. I freely admit that I prefer Old World (ie European) wines. As they say, "A chacun son gôut" (to each his own).

It's amazing to me that in this day and age, some wineries can still be lazy or inattentive and make crappy wines. With the enormous amount of winemaking information out there, there are still some people who'd rather take the easy route. As I tried to convey in my post about the harvest, it's not an easy job to create a good wine. It is easy, as I said, to make a bad one. But with a little effort and passion, one can make something that brings a smile to the lips of countless consumers. And when it's done right, a good wine becomes a great wine, something to last the ages, something that stirs the soul and makes you shiver in delight and think to yourself, "Wow, there is a God."

In the end, what I look for is balance, a beautiful equilibrium between all the components in the wine. One thing leads seamlessly to the other, all the elements meshing together to create something where the sum is greater than the parts. This makes it enjoyable either on its own or with food, which is the way wine was meant to be drunk. And I am proud to say that all the wines I represent are well-balanced. This is their over-riding commonality. Whether the wine is from the Cahors and is big and brawny or from the Macon where a streak of minerality runs through it, all of them share this trait.

So go ahead, drop by your local (serious) wine store, ask for someone who knows their stuff, and tell them you're looking for a well-balanced wine in your budget range. You might be pleasantly surprised, especially if you thought wine was just alcoholic fruit juice.


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