. Vite Vinifera De Vino's Blog: 2010

Tuesday, May 04, 2010


Timing, as the saying goes, is everything. The art of doing the right thing at the right time is often a result of intuition and experience. Good timing is also often ruled by the unseen forces of luck and fate, which have made themselves known to us throughout human history (not too long ago we thought the earth was flat). Fate, luck and good timing are what prompted me talk about vintages in today's post.

We all know that vintages can make a difference in taste, even if we're not sure how. In truth, a lot of us somehow have that knowledge branded in our brains. Sometimes we care about it even when is not really a factor. How have we learned about different years and their reputations? Most likely, it is because somebody reliable told us, "this vintage is good," or "this vintage is not so good." Since we cannot be present for every harvest of our favorite wines, we are left to trust wine professionals and friends. But how do those people define a great year, or an okay one, or a bad one? Here is where one can take a million different roads, depending on who he asks... and where he asks.

Take, for example, the 1997 vintage in Italy. In Montalcino, the general consensus is that 1997 was one of the best vintages of the century. In Barolo, the vintage was also good, but experts will tell you that wines from 1997 will not last as long as wines from 1996, which happened to be a very poor year for Montalcino. How does one define a great vintage? Is it better when a year is hot or cold? Rainy or dry? Sunny or cloudy? There's no way to make a determination with a universal rule; such a thing doesn't exist. The answer lies in a single word, and is as easy as it is complicated --


I asked my teacher, the master winemaker Roberto Cipresso, what balance means, and if he could define a common rule for it that was valid all around the globe. He said that balance in viticulture has to do with the tangible factors of sugar, PH (acidity) and tannin (antioxidant), and the intangible factor of timing. In an ideal year, with a regular season cycle, there is an even maturation of the grapes, and the three tangible factors will be evident in the fruit. Of the three Roberto told me that the tannins are the most important. This is because the maturation of the tannins can be extremely variable, where sugar and acidity can be more easily managed, and will result in fewer surprises in the bottle. His words showed me, literally created an image, of what this all business was about. "Tannins will give me a good indication of how the year was," he told me, and he began to describe some of the specific indicators. "When the seed is red and crunchy, when the skin transfers the color to the pulp when you lightly touch the grape, or if I chew the skin for few minutes and the tannins are not bitter - these are all really good signs." Those qualities, matched with a balanced PH and an agreeable level of sugar (so as not to have a wine with exorbitant alcohol content) makes a great vintage.

After that conversation with Roberto, I had a vocabulary for defining a "good" vintage. Then, I asked myself: what does "great" vintage mean, and does every grape need the same weather and season to meet those requirements? Let's start from the second question: the answer, frankly, is no. Vines adapt to their environments, and have been proven to do so quickly and efficiently. A balanced year for Burgundy, Barolo or Montalcino will have unique characteristics, as will the grapes for all of the different regions of the world. Just because all grapes are similar doesn't mean that each vine has the same optimal environment. To me, that would be like saying that every child should be raised the exact same way, regardless of advantages or shortcomings. It's just not true.

The first question needs a little more articulation to the answer. "Great" is a value judgment, and since we have an idea of what "good" vintage is, we're obviously looking for something... well... better. For this reasoning, I return to the idea of time: more time makes a greater wine. Generally speaking, a "great" vintage translates into wines that have a notably long aging potential (buying a wine that has many decades of longevity is a good investment - vintage is often an excellent indicator of a wine's lifespan). Technically speaking, a wine will live longer when the fruit goes through an even maturation. This is a rare occurrence, and the result is a well-balanced wine that will develop evenly, elevating the wine's overall structure. Evenly developed tannins (neither to ripe nor too green) will also preserve longevity, as well as the acidity. There are, of course, a number of vintage exceptions to the rule that equates greatness with longevity. 1990, 1997, and 2000 for example, were all fairly warm years, but the vintages are almost unanimously described as "great." This may be because the wines were exemplary of their appellations, or perhaps because warmer vintages tend to be more approachable at an early stage of life, and the wines' great qualities were more immediately evident. Whatever conclusions we draw, we must remember that we are judging with a lot of subjectivity, and that no vintage is universally "great."

By the same token, no vintage is universally "bad." I think it is worthwhile to look especially at the wines from great producers in difficult years. Here are a few reasons why.
Primarily (and most importantly, I believe) a man's hand can take action to deal with the problems that derive from unfavorable weather. This means that a skilled and experienced "vignaiolo" can develop the ability to manage his vines, and after careful supervision of his cellar, great wines can still emerge. A good winemaker can (and often will) downgrade the wine, using the best juices for what would be considered a "lesser" label. For example, in Montalcino in 2002 (a generally poor vintage), many great Brunello producers used all of their fruit to produce only Rosso di Montalcino, which bears a shorter aging standard and fewer fermentation requirements.

Another reason to look at good wines from bad vintages is more sentimental and emotional than it is practical. It has to do with the fact that any bottle of wine has a "memory"; the nectar in the glass will, in a sense, "remember" how hot, wet, cold or dry the year was. A few years ago I went to visit Riccardo Talenti in Montalcino and tasted his 2002 Brunello. We talked about bottling that year, and he told me that he corked only a few thousand bottles (very low production) and put a tremendous amount of effort into carefully selecting grapes. In the end, he managed to create a very good Brunello, a wine that he was happy with, but only because he worked so hard and sacrificed so much. He put his efforts in terms of history: he didn't make Brunello in 2002 for monetary reasons... he did it because he didn't want to miss the chance to do what only the greatest producers are able to do -- create good wines in bad years.

I found the resulting wine from Talenti was quite impressive, considering that the main problem in 2002 was a prolonged rain stretch at the end of the maturation, which can be devastating to a crop. The wine holds within it the memory of the year; truthful, not built. I bought a case of six bottles for a good price, and I am happy to say I have enjoyed them a few times already.

For the casual imbiber: "great" vintages are good to know, but a "bad" vintage will give you the opportunity to really single out a "great" wine. It is also a great standard on which you can purchase wines from renowned producers at a favorable prices. This can help to increase your experience without killing your bank. For the collectors: I will repeat what Mark, a great lover of wine and huge collector from London, told my good friend Piers: the memory of a particular year, good or bad, will fade. Look for great producers in off years - inevitably, the name will outlast the year.

Remember: don't dismiss a "bad" vintage too hastily - you could be missing out on a great opportunity!

Buona Bevuta a Tutti

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Instruction Manual

Understanding wine is not limited to being able to provide a description of it. Understanding a wine also means knowing how to drink it. And no, knowing how to put the glass to your lips is not enough.

In my previous post I talked about trade tastings, where a taster can try many different wines; today, I'd like to focus specifically on studying a single bottle. It's very important, I believe, to continue learning about the things you care for. With wine, going deeper and learning more means profoundly understanding a particular juice, which requires a lot of time, drinking many different bottles of the same stuff. Now, let's say you're getting a bottle (probably from your trusted store!) that you've never had before, and you walk out without any instruction on how to drink it. What would happen? Often, people don't know what to do - sometimes even I don't know, if it's a bottle I've never had before. That is when I sit back and I let the wine talk to me; I literally let it "open up" to me.

For example: there is a winery in California called Coturri. They are certified organic, and their wines have the lowest allowable concentration of sulfates. Every time you open a bottle of theirs, it's a journey, and I love to try them time and again. After several different tastes, I have come to believe that the Coturris work with oxidation: sulfates are antioxidants, so a low sulfate content will not protect a wine from oxidizing. That said, a winemaker might as well use that process in his or her favor. This can have some interesting results. When you open a bottle, sometimes it will smell... you might even think it's bad. Obviously, I had this very experience. So the first thing I did was try to understand if the wine was dead or alive - I poured half a finger in a crystal glass and smelled it, set a benchmark and waited few minutes. Then, I smelled it again and noticed that the wine was losing its initial, unpleasant funk and was coming together. It was alive!!!

After that, I periodically tried it in small sips from fresh pours until it seemed ready. And when it was, I poured myself a glass and sipped, and began my analysis of the juice. Oxygen interacts with wine, developing it until it reaches a peak, and then through its subsequent decay. At the beginning, I poured only a small quantity because I wanted to have more air in contact with less wine. This technique accelerates the process of oxidation, like decanting. When I felt the wine was ready, I wanted to slow that process, so I could have time to understand what was happening in the bottle itself. By the end of that experience, I had learned that this particular wine was not a wine to drink immediately; it needs time and patience, so I refrain from recommending it for any occasion where time is short. I also make sure to mention that it can age in the bottle for at least another decade or more. After few hours that wine had lost all of its oxidation flavors and it was simply delicious.

I purposely didn't mention which of the Coturri wines was the star of that story. Here's why: I have found that a winery's style is reflected in different degrees, depending on the bottle. To some extent, all of the Coturri wines will act like the one I had (I confirmed that intuition later, by opening all of their wines). But some may not take so long - others may take even longer. I don't want to tell you that you'll have the exact same experience that I had, because you may not; the specifics vary from bottle to bottle. The goal in fact is not just to detect and expose flavors to your friends, or to know a wine dead-on before you open it. The goal is to develop the ability to choose the right wine for the right occasion and to know what to do with it. That skill will dramatically change the emotions you'll feel and improve the overall experience of your meals, or whatever situation in which you've chosen to enjoy your wine. Then, you can transfer your knowledge to your wine friends, and they can do the same for you. You'll save time and money in the process of becoming informed winos.

One bottle is never enough. If you find a wine you love, you should try it over and over, especially at the beginning of the journey. After years of experience, you'll have enough know-how to understand or at least have an idea of what to do even before opening a bottle. Your brain will be trained to remember better and to categorize the wine so that you'll be able to choose more deftly. Knowing more also make you more confident. You'll believe in your intuitions and surprise your friends and yourself by choosing wines you've never had before, but already having an idea of what they will be like. In this process, learning one bottle of wine will provide you with a knowledge base for countless other bottles - an invaluable category of information.

I'll finish today with a short anecdote about wine confidence, and how it can truly guide you to new and exciting choices. I trust my wine intuitions often when I'm out with my girlfriend Susan; she is very passionate about food and wine, her palate is refined and challenging and even though she could easily pick a wine, she often asks me to do it. She made me think about being more specific in the way I choose wine from a list in a restaurant; several times after I'd made my selection, she would ask if I knew the wine. If I answered "no," she would ask what made me choose that particular bottle. I've always had to think about the answer, and at least at the beginning I wasn't able to put it into words... I was following a system but I didn't really know I had one. Having been coerced to think about it, I was inspired to write this post, through which I am finally able to provide an answer. I look at the list with confidence: if I see the selection is well thought-out, then I trust the palate behind the list, and my confidence increases. Then, if I know the wines from that region are good, and I am curious to try a new producer who I know to be very capable, again, my level of confidence rises, and ultimately, using my own intuition and shared information, I choose a wine I've never had before, and am often pleased with the results, and the subsequent journey.

I hope that in the future, sharing this kind of information will be the main focus of wine publication as well. I also think it would be very useful if wineries themselves wrote suggestions for how to enjoy their wines on their back labels. Until that happens, the helm of the ship on your wine journey belongs solely to you - navigate well, and the journey will be unforgettable.

Buona Bevuta a Tutti

Friday, April 09, 2010

Quick Sips

If you read my previous post and found some truth in it, you may be looking for a new approach to the wine world. This particular world is not made of absolutes, there is no mathematical certainty. Even if you are able to retain untold volumes of wine statistics, the numbers and figures are bound to change every single year.

So - how can we value a wine? A good start, I feel, is to create a sort of template that will put 'apples with apples and oranges with oranges,' so to speak. There are many different ways to taste and drink wine; in trade tastings or blind tastings, with food or without it, vertically or horizontally (no, that has nothing to do with body orientation... verticals are when you taste different vintages of the same wine from the same producer, and horizontals involve only one vintage), all these different ways will allow you to see and appreciate wine from different angles and prospective. Today, I'm going to stick to an analysis of trade tasting.

When I'm tasting professionally, I'll have maybe two sips of each individual wine, and often I don't actually drink it - I spit it. All professionals have their own specific objectives at trade tastings. My goals are few and simple: I'm either trying new wines, or new vintages of wines I already know. In both cases, my limited tasting time forces me to taste the wine without context (trade tastings are often packed with people, and it is common to feel rushed). Instead, I make a summary judgment either on the differences from previous vintages, or the basic objective value of the wines (if I haven't tried them before).

When I attend these tastings, my sole objective is to find wine that eventually I will buy for De-Vino. That action is comparable to being a critic, with one main difference: I do not primarily use my own personal taste. I buy based on more objective parameters; overall quality, observable elements of the bouquet, palate and finish (regardless of the style), balance, and acidity. Independent of my individual taste, I believe those criteria to be sturdy and thorough in the general assessment of a wine. There are, of course, more detailed parameters applied for specific kinds of wines; for instance, reds require a judgment regarding tannins, and in champagne, the finesse of the "perlage" must be taken into account. Provenance, the size of the winery and price are also key factors. A wine can be spectacular, but horribly outpriced for the market.

These points will work for any style of wine, and I think they are just about as objective as they can be, especially in a field where personal taste is so highly prized. In this particular kind of tasting, whether or not I like a wine isn't as important as whether or not I believe my customers will like that same wine, keeping in mind, we may not have similar tastes. Sometimes I feel as though trade tasting is like speed dating; but, instead of meeting women, I meet wines.

I don't mean to make it seem as though professional tasting is impersonal and menial. It's not. Going to big tastings lets you asses a flavor and style profile; modern, traditional, fruity, dry, full, light, floral, astringent, velvety... you can develop a vocabulary to match the sensations you get from the wines. It is also a good way for non-professional palates to create flavor memories. Part of my own education consisted of going to trade tastings with wine experts. Often, the producer himself (or herself!) will be pouring the wines, so just listening to the conversations between producers and experts can be a great resource. You'll learn about tannins, acidity, wood, mold, yeast, sugar, flavors and countless other elements of the winemaking and tasting process. That said, listening should always be a big part of the process. It certainly has been for me, from listening to my parents talking about wine at dinner as a kid, up to now, listening to the wine itself. If you're just starting out, don't worry if most of what is said doesn't mean anything to you. Consider, perhaps, that you are accumulating dots that only time and experience can connect. With patience, every piece of the puzzle will come together.

Trade tastings are a great resource. It's like scratching the tip of the iceberg - it's a great way to broadly taste numerous wines and help you increase your flavor data base, learn terminology and vinification techniques from the people of the trade. But! It will not give you the value of emotion, because you are tasting wine without context, and thereby without the mechanism required appreciate the more subtle complexities it may have to offer.

In the next few posts I will keep on analyze different ways to taste and appreciate wine, hopefully giving you more dots that than we can try to connect together. So for now and until next time...

...Buona Bevuta a Tutti

Friday, March 26, 2010

And We Are Back

After a long silence, I have decided to come back to my blog. I'm not sure yet how often I will post, but for those of you that are interested I will write more regularly.

There were many reasons behind my silence; one in particular was the sore state of the wine industry. It somehow made me lose hope, and thereby the will to write. The past year was difficult for many reasons... 2009 was the year of scandals, fights, accusations and a lots of turmoil in our world. There were many voices focusing on wines that were considered "great deals," and the fight for quality was definitely lost against the economic meltdown. On top of that, we had the Brunello scandal, which was not much of a scandal in my eyes. All of a sudden, purveyors became concerned that some of the wines bearing the name "Brunello di Montalcino" contained grapes other than Sangiovese (the DOCG law prohibits this). The notion that many Brunellos are composed this way was, to me, a well known fact, and it made me laugh to see the major Montalcino players in the "defendant" role. Even the "Consorzio" hierarchy, the ones who presumably preserve the Brunello quality, were accused of wrongdoing. The same sore of scandal occurred in Chianti and in the North of Italy where few wineries decided to bottle of Pinot Grigio and Prosecco that were tainted with muriatic acid (the same chemical as hydrochloric acid - yum!), and similar problems plagued some of the highly prized Bordeaux wines. It was fun to see the excuses behind the scandals; most of Montalcino blamed American wine critics. Evidently, in order to please the "American" palate, the winemakers had to put unauthorized grapes into their Brunello... so they were forced to break the law to sell their products. How absurd - especially if one thinks that critics are there to protect quality, when they often, in fact, force producers to lower it.

Where is the truth? As always, I see it to be in the middle. Italians love shortcuts, the so-called "easy way." So, instead of trying to let the critics understand and explain what "Good Brunello" should be, they figured it would be easier (and cheaper!) to just tailor the wines to the critics' taste. Great job! Congratulations!!! The real misfortune is that, in spite of all the scandal, not much has changed. Critics still think that wine can be categorized with points and wineries still try to get higher scores in every way possible, even with clandestine methods, to sell more.

Things aren't much different than they were a year ago... but I think it's time to express myself again. I will try, starting now, to approach the subject from a different angle. I will try to let go of the "Which Is The Best Wine?" philosophy, and focus more on When And Why Is A Wine Good?" Hopefully, this will leave my readers with options, rather than a hard and fast suggestion based on some circumstantial idea of expertise. I don't believe in the best wine, but in the right wine at the right time. So, instead of prizing a theoretical "best," I will give you options that you can use at your own "right time."

Tasting many wines for work and drinking as many for pleasure, I often wonder why the point system is so successful. I mean, really. Does anyone really believe that the millions of differences that exist in as many wines can be explained and categorized with a 100-point chart? I've had wines that, on a given night, were perfect. Then, on another arbitrary night, the same wine was not as exceptional. That could have happened for several reasons: maybe my state of mind was different. I might have been upset, tired, taking medication or eating something different that didn't pair as well. Most likely, the weather conditions were also different; warmer, colder, drier or wetter. All of those factors change the perception of what a person is tasting.

That said, it might be more useful if the point-based wine reviews also disclosed the conditions in which the wine was tasted. That way, enthusiasts will know that a particular wine was a 99-pointer when it was tasted after great news, or the taster was very happy, or had great sex the night before, or... whatever. Then, perhaps the same wine was an 85-pointer after the taster was audited by the IRS, or had a fight with his wife and slept on the couch, or was taking aspirin for a migraine. Obviously, I'm exaggerating the situation to give you a better idea, but if you consider the difference a 90 or a 95 score makes for sales, it's clear how important it can be to know the state of mind and the environmental settings when the wine is tasted. It is true that a professional taster is able to adjust and take in consideration things like palate fatigue or other interfering factors... but trust me, it is very difficult to be that objective, even for a professional.

Scoring wines in a more realistic sense, however, is essentially pointless. Why? Because we all have different palates. I, for instance, like more challenging and austere wines. It's rare for me to like - or even see the value in - many 95+ Parker point wines... not because I have a better or worst palate than he does, but because I have a DIFFERENT palate. With Robert Parker, you deal with a well-defined style; many wineries around the world have been "Parkerized," meaning that they produce bigger, more concentrated, fruit-forward wines, because that's what Parker likes. So, when you buy a wine with a 95+ Parker score, you know that is going to be a big juicy wine. Easy. With a lot of wine publication, however, it's not that simple. You don't deal with just one palate or style, so the scores are all over the map, which makes deciding on a wine even harder for the final consumer. The scores just confuse the situation. And that's not even considering the fact that these publications also need to generate revenue of their own, leaving any active consumer with lingering suspicions regarding the origin of a wine's score. It is a vicious circle that can lead to uniform wines - if all producers start to make their wines for the critics, we will lose diversity for the sake of just a few palates. This is already happening in many places, like Chile and Spain... and the noble region of Montalcino.

So let's find a new way to talk about wines together. Let's look at these beautiful juices with a perspective that is less mathematical and more empirical. Let's focus more on the right fit than on an abstract search for a non-existent "best." Wine is a complex matter, and I think that trying to simplify it is not the best we can do to transfer our passion to fellow enthusiasts. I think that the best thing we can do as wine professionals is to teach the people how to think with their own heads (and palates) instead of relying on someone else's numerical accounts. Let's get to it.
... Buona Bevuta a Tutti