Being in the midst of the Olympics, as the whole world is watching athletes striving to go faster, higher, stronger, it’s good to remember that winemaking is not an athletic endeavour.
It may be about better, but it’s not about bigger and more. It’s about balance. It’s about working out a set of variables so that the total becomes more than the sum of the parts. Which does not mean that the parts in question need to be maximized. It’s a game of give and take.
That’s the main point I tried to make in my blog post about Vanity Winemaking and a totally overblown reserve wine from Cahors, on Palate Press. The wine in question is Le Pigeonnier 1999, a wine of ridiculously low yields and extremely high oak infusions that got a 95 from Robert Parker, giving newfound attention to the Cahors appellation, about ten years ago. For all the wrong reasons.
By turning everything up to 11, in Spinal Tap fashion, Michel Rolland and Alain Dominique Perrin created a monster, a parody of a wine. At ten years of age, it’s not good at all and won’t improve. Because it has no balance.
The problem with that wine is not unrelated to the reasons that have caused The Collapse of Cabernet, as Dan Berger called it in an excellent article in the Napa Valley Register, last month:
I was a judge at the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition last week and one flight of 60 cabernets was utterly disappointing: almost all were huge, ungainly red wines that had no aroma I ascribe to cabernet. And these oafs had no food compatibility whatever. (…) There are complicated reasons for this turnabout, but the bottom line is that we may have lost cabernet for all time. I can’t drink them young; I can’t imagine they will age well, and I cannot figure out why so many people are still buying them. (…) I hear rumors that wine makers are trying to cut back on alcohols. But we are locked in to a system that calls for this sort of mediocrity.
As Berger himself points out, elegance is still to be found, if you look for it. If you can get your hands on some Smith-Madrone cabs from Spring Mountain, or Corison cabs from the St Helena appellation, you’ll find that balanced, finely tuned cabernets can indeed still be found. Some cabs in the new winemaking paradigm manage to find balance, too, but it just isn’t centered around the same notion of balance that you could find in just about all 1997 California cabernet sauvignons, wines that are still youthful and full of life today.
There is often a simplistic opposition, in wine writing, between “big” and “delicate” wines, between concentrated and thin, a dualistic view that recently led Robert Parker to lament, in a recent tweet, about the heavy discounts on “Aussie shirazs..out of fashion among the anti-flavor wine elites”. The remark generated a Facebook page for the Anti-Flavor Wine Elite, where people proudly exclaim with ironic glee how much they have been enjoying wines that had no flavor.
I can assure you that there is plenty of flavor in many of the anti-flavor wines. And I’m sure there are Aussie shirazes that the “Elite” also enjoy. Virtue is in the middle, as the expression goes. Not everyone has quite the same middle, but the extremes make little sense, whether in the high-volume, characterless end or in the extremely extracted, hyperconcentrated end of the spectrum.
Reading Tweets about the Wine Writers’ Symposium currently taking place in Napa Valley got me thinking about this particular aspect of the whole issue of balance. Jeff Morgan, a wine writer turned winemaker, known for his high-end Covenant kosher cabernet, was quoted by participants as saying that California wines were routinely acidified, and almost as routinely “watered back” to reduce the high alcohol levels. Remedial winemaking has become standard? If so, natural balance is certainly becoming a rare thing. Wine lovers take note: there’s something… pretty ripe in the kingdom of California.
Anyhow, this particular tweet from Joe Roberts got my attention too:
Jeff Morgan: unripe tannins *never* soften or integrate in wine bottle aging.#wws2010
Which immediately had me firing back that:
And I would add: neither do tannins from overextraction or overoaking. #wws2010
Too much tannin, whether from lack of ripeness or from overextraction, makes for an unpleasant wine, because it tends to dominate the mix, and block the rest out. In other words, it throws the wine out of balance.
It doesn’t mean there can’t be a lot of tannin in a wine. Some grapes are more tannic than others, of course. But whether it’s pinot noir or malbec, there’s a point where those tannins will become overwhelming, dry, tough, and have a negative effect on the wine.
You go too far in one direction or the other, and it will show in the wine. Sugars, phenolics, acidity, concentration, tannins all have to be well-evaluated, and winemaking has to be worked out according to those parameters. If grapes aren’t as ripe as the previous vintage, it’s highly likely that using the same amount of new oak will not work as well. If the vintage was exceptionally dry and hot, producing thick skins and lots of tannins, long macerations and lots of punching down of the grapeskins will likely give the wine a harsh texture, if not a bitter finish.
Year to year, grape to grape, vineyard to vineyard, all the variables will work themselves out differently. Resolving those variables well, starting in the vineyard and in harvest decisions, is crucial to making great wines. Case in point, the 2009 vintage in Bordeaux, which yielded exceptionally ripe grapes and thus, a lot of high-alcohol wines. But as Bill Blatch puts it in his extremely detailed evaluation of the vintage, published on JancisRobinson.com:
Then there were many growers, mostly in lesser areas, who got frightened by the abnormally high September sugar readings and who picked there and then, before true phenolic ripeness, often realising their mistake afterwards and trying to catch up with longer macerations, which just made it worse. There will be some examples of these rather hard and bitter wines in the spring tastings. Then, at the other end of the scale, the habitually very late pickers, especially on the right bank, have certainly sometimes made wines that will be incredibly alcoholic, very dryly tannic, ultra low in acidity and maybe prone to brett. We just have to hope that the counter-trend that we have noticed in our tastings of the bottled wines of such estates since the 2004 vintage towards more balanced wines will have continued.
Careful, attentive winemakers will always find some kind of balance – whether that balance is found at 15% or 12% alcohol, with lots of new oak or no oak at all. Last weekend, I tasted a superb Ribera del Duero from Bodegas Alion, a winery created by the legendary Vega Sicilia. This 100% tinto fino (tempranillo) wine was juicy, big, smooth, sustained by a reasonable amount of acidity and a sort of gentleness, despite the fact that it clearly came from a hot vintage.
Indeed, it was a 2003, a year that showed little mercy to the vines, especially in hot regions like southern France, Spain, Southern Italy, etc. In a way, it was a vintage cranked to 11. Somehow, the people at Alion found a way to turn it down a notch or two, and work out the variables of that particular wine, in that particular vintage. And that’s how they made their way to that elusive, complex place that produces balance and harmony. I’ll bet that, thanks to that careful, well-thought out approach, it will be a lot better for a lot longer than the 1999 Pigeonnier.