Biased wine drinker = Ill-informed wine drinker

So you are a Riesling fan but never drink a wine made from this grape from anywhere else other than Germany or Alsace? Your favourite red is Bordeaux Blend from the eponymous region and you think it is waste to drink such a wine from any other region of the world? You are one of those who feel that the epitome of elegance in a Burgundy Pinot Noir makes every other Pinot simply plonks in comparison? The very thought of drinking a Sangiovese from Australia makes you tizzy? And when it comes to sparkling wines, you are militantly biased against anything else apart from Champagne?

As much out-of-place these may sound in this globalized age, where wine appreciation has transcended geographical boundaries (remember British Palate Vs. American Palate, which is of little interest today?), it is still not uncommon to encounter hardcore and blindfolded loyalty to wines made in particular regions.

Talking about myself…

I was no different until about seven years ago, as a fresh student of the subject and a ‘newbie’ in the field of wine tasting and appreciation. I suffered from this naive tendency of comparing wines from classical wine regions with those which have adopted the same grape varieties, but not necessary the styles. And most often, I would blindly trivialize the latter for being not-at-par to their Old World counterparts.

Have I learnt my lessons?

You bet! Looking back, this ignorance was solely the result of little knowledge and awareness, but now, after upgrading my wine learning and drinking hundreds of wines from many wine regions, and of many styles and genres, I have realized how incomplete and ill-informed wine drinker I was.

So how does one differentiate between styles and appreciate uniqueness of each?

To start with, the intrinsic character (aromas and flavours) of a wine grape hardly changes with regional variation. Be it the black fruit and crème-de-cassis like characters of Cabernet, Riesling’s floral aromas, Chenin blanc’s grated green apple notes or Grenache’s sweet & spicy berry flavours, the primary nature of the grape remains intact irrespective of where it has grown. It’s only the wine-growing conditions (terroir, in technical terms), along with wine-making practices which alter the styles of the final product.

While it will need an entire book to compare the distinct characteristics of similar wines from different regions, I have chosen three most common grape varieties known to produce clearly distinguishable wines when grown outside their traditional environments. For each, I have laid down the characters of both the Old and New World variants, along with a brief conclusion outlining their merits. The idea is to demonstrate the uniqueness and speciality of every style.

1.) Pinot Noir:  This is one grape variety which arouses the most intense passions in terms of their regional following. Terroir in its true sense is most passionately debated whenever this grape is in question. In its home in Burgundy, the quality wines display elegant, layered aromas, mixed with the signature ethereal touch. Except in very warm vintages, the tannins are never too matured and fruits not too ripe (jammy wines in Burgundy’s top echelons would almost be a sin!). Overall, the producers here aim to make complex, age-worthy Pinots which exemplify balance.

A typical Old World Burgundy Pinot Noir Vs. a New World style from Central Otago
A typical Old World Burgundy Pinot Noir Vs. a New World style from Central Otago

In New World regions like Central Otago of New Zealand, the winemakers seldom aim to make their Pinot Noirs in the traditional Burgundian style. Rather, the aim is to let the fruit express itself as much as possible (fruit-forward, in other words). The grapes are normally left longer on the vine to achieve optimum ripeness, resulting in richer wines with silkier tannins. A lot of New World Pinots also have attractive (darker) colours and more elements of ripe dark berries in addition to the usual red fruits (red currants, strawberries, raspberries and red plums). The objective is never to make investment-grade ‘fine wines’ but a product which is enjoyed young and with a wide range of food.

Conclusion: Red Burgundy’s USP is its sheer power of seduction and unique style associated with the appellation it is grown in, which very few regions can match, more so when the grape variety happens to be the fussy Pinot Noir. But that does not take away the credit from the New World Pinots which have created their own distinct profile and are admired for their easy approachability and expressive nature.

If Burgundy is synonymous with raw pleasure and ‘beauty-in-complexity’, the New World Pinot Noirs are enjoyed for their down-to-earth charm and unpretentious character.

2.) Syrah/Shiraz: Syrah is to northern Rhone what Cabernet Sauvignon is to Medoc. Its reputation as one of the noblest grapes of France is best represented in the wines from such venerable appellations as Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. The fact that the New World’s most famous wine from Syrah/Shiraz, the modern-day Penfolds Grange, started its journey to fame as ‘Grange Hermitage’, bears testimony the stature of the wines from Rhone Valley (Hermitage appellation of Northern Rhone represented the benchmark style of Syrah).

Two wines grown in very different conditions producing varying & unique styles
Two wines grown in very different conditions producing varying & unique styles

Rhone Syrah, and especially those from the top appellations, is known for its powerful structure and a complex, but highly attractive, aroma profile. These benchmark examples are characterized by plenty of dark berry aromas with varying notes of mocha, dark chocolate, minerals & wet red earth and smoke, along with distinct peppery spice. A lot of these wines may be highly perfumed when co-fermented with the local white speciality, Viognier (and Marsanne & Rousanne, occasionally). The tannins are always sturdy without being offensive and so is the acidity. Their full body and rich mouthfeel are extremely addictive.

Its new world counterparts are scattered throughout – from Hawkes Bay in New Zealand to Washington State in the US, from Western Cape in South Africa to almost all the regions of Australia; each specialising in their own unique styles of Syrah/Shiraz. But among all these, the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in South Australia have created specific and distinct styles which attract a huge fan following world over’. These range from pure & highly extracted ‘fruit bombs’ to more serious wines with plenty of varietal characters as well as secondary aromas of sweet spices, chocolate, licorice and savoury fruit candies. Owing to the warm growing conditions, most have ripe tannins and high alcohol (which, sometimes is so much that the all important balance is compromised), resulting in warm and heavy mouthfeel. But when well-made, these wines are extremely delicious.

Conclusion: It is once again apparent that the Rhone Syrah, being a product of the traditional genre, is more of a classic style – not on-your-face, lean, complex, food-friendly and made to age gracefully.

Now, should this style be taken as the ultimate representation of Syrah/Shiraz? Not if the ones from South Australia are also admired for their individuality displayed by the highly expressive fruit, silky and smooth tannins, rich mouthfeel and full body. Are these traits not to be enjoyed in a wine?

3) Riesling: Riesling, like Pinot Noir, is quite fastidious about its choice of growing conditions. A cool climate variety, it expresses itself fully only when the existing growing conditions are optimum. Germany is the spiritual home of Riesling as its terroir is best suited to its existence. In the classic German regions of Mosel, Rheingau and Nahe, Riesling thrives in many varied microclimates, producing a vast array of styles. The unique characters of quality German Rieslings are inimitable – exotic floral notes, layers of citrus fruits, wet stones and minerals and kerosene-like notes with prominent steely acidity. Riesling’s unique ability to shine in sweeter styles is also well recognised in German wines.

A classic German Riesling & a New World variant
A classic German Riesling & a New World variant

While Alsace and Austria add to the Old World’s portfolio, the New World’s contribution to the worldwide Riesling production is still far and few. Some noticeable regions which have triumphed in creating particular styles of their own include Oregon and Washington states in the US, Marlborough and Central Otago in New Zealand and northern reaches of South Australia – mainly Clare and Eden Valleys. Instead of being intensely floral and minerally, which is the core hallmark of German, Alsatian and Austrian Rieslings, these wines display more fruit characters – grapefruit, apples, nectarine etc. along with citrus blossoms. Some good examples also show hints of flint-like minerals, and most also maintain their fresh acidity.

Conclusion: Germany is blessed with growing conditions that are typically suited to Riesling and naturally the wines demonstrate unmatchable finesse and quality. But over the years, many New World wine regions have also successfully crafted their own styles which have won worldwide acclaim and acceptance.

Genuine wine lovers, like gourmands, are known to be adventurous in their drinking habits and that’s what separates a wine drinker from the rest. The ability to enjoy a wide range of styles and types of wines is the innate quality of genuine wine consumers. One may not like a particular wine due to factors like a less-than-average vintage, poor wine-making and substandard storage & cellaring, but these do not make a style of wine irrelevant or unacceptable.

Cheers,

Niladri

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Demystifying the palate war

Ever wondered what separates the Americans from the Europeans (especially the British), apart from their accents, the ways of spelling English words and of course, the Atlantic Ocean? It’s their palate; for wine. If you are not already familiar with this (somewhat hush-hush) reality, it may come across as bizarre and even amusing. The fact that a wine’s taste, and hence quality, can be perceived so differently among two demographics, makes this a gripping topic to analyse. This post is an attempt to do exactly that without sounding blatantly dramatic and based on a well-reasoned and informed assumption that such a division does exist in the wine world.

So, what is the basis of this whole debate about American palate vs. European/British palate? Is it just a media created hype or is there real substance to this differentiation? Does an element of  ‘wineupmanship’, so often witnessed in the wine world, accentuate this rift? If the division is for real, how glaring are the difference of opinions?

Questions like these have provided plenty of food for thought to wine commentators since this phenomenon appeared on the world stage, most noticeably in the form of a very public spat between two of the world’s most prolific tasters and highly regarded wine critics, Robert Parker Jr. and Jancis Robinson. The wine in question was the 2003 Chateau Pavie from Saint-Emilion, a super-ripe, rich, concentrated and fruit-forward example which defied the very essence of a classic, quintessential Bordeaux – elegant, food-friendly wines known for their balance (between acidity, sugar, tannin and alcohol) and ability to age for a long period of time. Parker, the American, showered high praises on the wine during his routine En Primeur tastings whereas Robinson, a British, dismissed it as an “unappetising and ridiculous” wine. What followed was a clear emergence of style preference of the two camps and an all too visible polarisation, not only within the expert/critic community but also in the way wines were produced in many traditional wine-growing regions around the world.

Although many in the wine industry have dismissed it as nothing more than a mere ‘storm in a wine glass’, it will be unrealistic not to accept the fact that there are indeed two schools of thought when it comes to tagging a wine based on its taste profile. Simply stated, most Americans tend to prefer wines with vibrant fruit falvours, softer tannins, lower acidity, comparatively higher alcohol and an overall richer concentration. This preference could be related to the general California styles where growing conditions more or less favour more exuberant wines.

The British, on the other hand, have often inclined towards more traditional and classic Old World style of wines where the catch word is ‘balance’. Anything over the top and the Brits are the first to press the alarm button, which is not surprising as wine drinking in the country has always been very Europe-centric, where wine styles tend to be rather restrained albeit complex and classy with an expression of the place they belong to (terroir, in other words). This, by no means suggests that terroir has no role in American wines…in addition to the overall growing conditions, winery operations in the USA (like many other New World producers) have a big role to play in deciding the final outcome.

Now, that brings us to the crux of the matter – why so much fuss about how people choose to enjoy their wine? In my view, there are two possible explanations for this. The first and foremost relates to economics. What sounds like a trivial issue relating to perceptions of taste would not have mattered much if it did not have a profound effect on the global wine business, especially at the top, ultra-premium level. One has to simply look at the transformation of the Bordeaux Right Bank (St. Emilion & Pomerol, mainly) to understand this theory. Robert Parker’s tremendous influence on wine prices has resulted in the adoption of an almost signature style by the majority of this part of Bordeaux. No wonder that some of the wines from this region (the likes of Le Pin, Lafleur, Valandraud et al) consistently demand higher prices than most of their more illustrious Left Bank counterparts. This certainly defies logic if one still considers the 1855 Classification as the benchmark for quality and price (not many people do…aren’t we in the 21st century now?).

The second, and probably more of a subjective issue seems to be that both the sides feel that by letting the rivals have the last word, their own wine identities could be at stake. Looks like the custodians of each of these identities have decided not to let the other dictate how their followers want to enjoy drinking wine. After all, it is a known fact that influencing evolving wine taste buds does not take a huge effort.

Although a comparatively recent discord within the larger wine world, the entire palate debate has definitely added punch to the already heady mix of opinions and the more the industry evolves the more this matter is likely to gain attention. We may have just seen the beginning!

Cheers,

Niladri