Friday, December 19, 2014

High Rollers Not FIt for the Table

Wines & Vines,  Dec, 2004  by Catherine Fallis

On a first date in Napa Valley this summer, my dinner companion arrived with a bottle of Napa Syrah provided by his host. I gently explained the two reasons I didn't think it was appropriate to open it. First of all, it was on the wine list. Second of all, I had no intention of obliterating my palate. I was excited about the food, and was determined to enjoy a balanced wine that would flatter it, not some super-ripe, concentrated, tannic monster.

Pity the man who thinks he can win me over with modern wine. Am I old-fashioned? You bet. Am I unfashionable in my wine tastes? Yes, sir. Will I give up lacy Riesling and tart, mouth-puckering Pinot Noir to drink killer Cab and monster Zin? I think not.

Wine has intrinsic tartness. This is one of the reasons it has graced dinner tables for so many centuries; tartness serves to stimulate the gastric juices as well as to cleanse the palate between bites. However, many of today's most highly rated wines are crafted to please the palate without the benefit of food. While enjoyable on their own as cocktails, these 100-point blockbuster-style wines are unbalanced and generally unsuitable for the table. They are donut wines--flashy, fruity and creamy on the outside, with nothing inside.

A handful of wineries are bucking the trend of making boozy cocktail wines, instead making wines that are subtle, understated, compatible with food and capable of aging. Chateau Montelena owners Jim and Bo Barret say, "We're going to make a wine that is compatible with food and will improve with age, not a boozy Chardonnay." Robert Mondavi, on his 90th birthday, said, "Densely fruity California wines that are popular with wine critics are like high-end call girls with a lot of glitter." New York Times writer Frank Prial agrees. He says, "California Chardonnays are vinous SUVs. They're over-oaked and over-flawed."

With today's wine, as it seems with everything else, the louder, richer and deeper in color, the better. With spicy dishes, it seems like the hotter a wine is, the more highly regarded it is. Certainly as our senses are barraged, we lose the ability to enjoy subtlety and nuance of flavor, of music, of perfume, of art.

The biggest issue is whether or not Americans want wine to go with food, or wine as a cocktail. As wine director at Aqua, a high-end seafood restaurant in San Francisco, I came into contact with Americans from all walks of life. I loved the guys who would puff out their chests and ask me questions like, "Should we start with the Opus One or the Joseph Phelps Insignia?" I'd choose one at random. What did it matter which beefy, tannic, complex red wine they had with their oysters and ceviche? In my days of innocence, I would stop by the table with complimentary tastes of Tchacoli, Vinho Verde, Albarino, or a white Friulian wine to have with the cold seafood platter. After a while I just gave up. People want what they want. My job was to make sure they got it.

Tim Meinken, co-owner of Sapphire Hill Vineyards & Winery in the Russian River Valley says, "One of the reasons we are getting higher alcohols is young vines with tight spacing." Rick Hutchinson, owner and winemaker at Amphora Winery in Dry Creek Valley, adds, "Young vines want to take off and grow. Pruning, crop level, tight spacing for maximum efficiency of the soil, clones--they are all choices. Pinot Noir at 16% alcohol is not a dinner wine."

Every winemaker's goal is to extract color, aroma, flavor, fruit tannins and sugar from healthy, fully mature, ripe grapes and then to finish the wine as he or she sees fit and as the style of wine dictates. The skilled winemaker seeks a seamless wine where all components are in balance, with no one component rising above the others. Ultimately the passionate, artistic winemaker will stand in the fringes as his or her personal style doesn't conform.

A winemaker can manipulate for desired balance and extraction at all points, including enhancing or reducing alcohol, acid or sugar; by selection of yeasts, by using temperature or S[O.sub.2] to enhance extraction, by employing malolactic fermentation, by choice of fermentation and aging vessels. It can also be done by using techniques such as settling, racking, exposing to oxygen, exposing to S[O.sub.2], fining, cold stabilization and filtering. Finally, a winemaker may blend finished wines from different lots, barrels or grape varieties to further achieve desired balance and extraction.

Henri Jayer, producer of rare and highly sought-after Echezeaux, Vosne-Romanee Cros Parantoux and Vosne-Romanee Les Beaumonts, taught a generation of Cote de Nuits producers to gain aroma and bouquet more gently and beneficially with an extended pre-fermentative cold soak.

His noninterventionist approach--unthinkable to many technologically minded winemakers--includes destemming, doing an extended pre-fermentative maceration in which the grapes are cooled to 15[degrees]C for five to seven days, encouraging the release of fine aromas and color, then crushing and macerating in the skins for up to 30 days. The resulting wines are profound, mysterious, elusive and immensely pleasurable to both the senses and the intellect, and are a delight with food.

Skilled, passionate winemakers strive to achieve both balance and extraction in their wines. A New World winemaker has all the incentives in the world to push for opaque color, dense tannin extraction and chart-topping alcohol, and may use all the tools in his or her arsenal to achieve this. In contrast a classic, traditional Old World producer may rely more on natural benefits such as terroir, and take a noninterventionist role to produce more long-lived, understated wines. Either way, they both rely on using the healthiest grapes their vineyards can produce and the many techniques at their disposal in the winery.

Ultimately, consumers will decide if the wines of massively high extraction are balanced enough for them to consume, let alone to cellar. In the meantime, I'll be inviting more food-friendly wines (and men) to join me at the dinner table.

(Catherine Fallis is a Master Sommelier, founder and president of Planet Grape[R] LLC, and creator of Grape Goddess Guides to Good Living, available now as e-learning tools and in live seminars. Visit her Web site, or contact her through Wines & Vines at

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