By Dan Berger
In 1981, I wrote a newspaper wine column in which I said that learning about wine, especially fine wines, was a daunting task. Today, despite the advent of the internet and cell phones, it is worse than ever.
Back 34 years ago I suggested, for instance, that Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc were easy to understand, but that for a wine that works nicely with grilled seafood we should also understand Muscadet; that for certain Asian foods we needed to look at Alsace Gewurztraminer, that the Rhône Valley had numerous sub-regions worth noting, and that Italy was a whole ’nother story, complete with grape varieties few Americans had ever heard of at the time, such as Nebbiolo and Sangiovese.
Moreover, the number of grape varieties being made into wine in California back then included Semillon, Carignane, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, even Gamay Beaujolais. At one time in the early 1980s, Weibel was making 43 different products!
As the years have gone by, I now realize, wine is more complicated than ever, and finding out about it all in detail is next to impossible.
In spite of the fact that most major wineries around the world have simplified their lines down to a recognizable few (Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet and perhaps Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel), the world is reaching overload in terms of what we should know about the fine wines.
Wine lovers who want to be broadly educated about the world’s fine wines have never had more to learn. It’s fine to attempt to be encyclopedic about all of this, like memorizing the 10 Cru Beaujolais, the soil type of Alto Adige, the encépagement at Chateau Marquis-de-Terme, and the best vintages for buying a red wine of Umbria.
It is quite another to recall all the esoterica of the game, the stuff that gives snobs their stripes. Like whether Ramonet actually produces a Saint-Aubin, whether 1966 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet was the first vineyard-designated wine in the United States, and what exactly is Valduigie.
It has gotten so complicated in part because of the opening up of new and exciting regions. Look at it simply from the point of view of what consumers see on a wine shop shelf, wines that a decade ago didn’t exist.
We saw no Marlborough wines until well after that 1981 column was written. Today we know that the district at the north end of the south island of New Zealand produces sensational Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and a number of other great wines. (This means we now have not only this new district to deal with, but a flood of brands coming from there.) And now there is Wairarapa, Hawkes Bay, and Waiheke Island – 10 different sub-regions.
Back 20 years ago, we saw no Carmenere from Chile. Today we know it to be a widely planted red wine grape of Chile often labeled as Merlot. We never saw wine from South Africa (for political reasons). Such wines now are making inroads onto shelves of wine shops owned by adventurous owners.
We also have more fine wine from Italy, some of it made from Sagrantino, Teroldego, Lagrein and other grapes. We have “modern era” Rioja and a plethora of Rhône reds, both domestic and imported. We have loads of Shiraz from Australia, not to mention more Merlot, Cabernet and all the Meritage blends. And small, hoping-for-prestige districts in France are now available here, not least of which are Sancerre, Cahors, Madiran, and Nimes.
Researching all of this is not easy. Even for the true enophile, getting the right definition to wine label terms isn’t easy.
Pick up a quality reference book, such as Jancis Robinson’s acclaimed “Oxford Companion to Wine,” and you’ll see how daunting is the task. This reference work is nearly 1,100 pages of small print, and though quite readable, it has no index. Since it’s an encyclopedia and thus is alphabetized, it might not seem necessary, but if you look up Ramonet, there is no listing. Thus you can’t tell if it makes a Saint-Aubin. (It does.)
And scores do not replace knowledge. That’s because wine magazines have caved in to expedience and bless only the politically correct varieties and districts with scores high enough to pay attention to.
You never see a Sierra Foothills wine get a score of 93, you never see a Pinot Gris get a score of 90, you never see a Sagrantino get a score of 90, you never see a rosé get a score of 90.
And why? Because historically only the politically correct wines deserve such praise, and the number mongers willingly compare footballs to olives — they are, after all, about the same shape. Left out of the mix are wines made from grapes or regions without a history of great wine. And therein lies the catch-22.
Never mind that the uses of different wines are radically different. On a hot day, with the humidity at 90%, I’d sooner have a glass of rosé than a Chateau Latour. So why does the Latour always score higher?
So even though we see a great deal more wines today than we ever saw 20 years ago, high scores are going only to the wines from one small grouping.
What this concentration of scoring has done to the consumer who buys by number is limit the choices down to only the few “proper” wines. Having never seen a Petite Sirah get a score in the 90s, the consumer assumes the wine isn’t very good, and ignores it. The phrase “great Chenin Blanc” is seen as a non-starter by wine snobs who are willing to get ecstatic over the next oak-infused Chardonnay. Mediocre Cabernet still is anointed. It is a politically correct grape.
Wine is not a product. It is an ongoing process — one in which the researcher who also tastes regularly learns what a joy it is to discover new aromas, a new tastes, new personas.
It’s one reason I love wine. It is its distinctiveness and diversity.
The more we know about it, the more interesting tastes we’ll find. Scoring wines does a disservice to adventuring.