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A Workable Definition of Greatness
The Elements of a Great Wine
What is a great wine? This is one of the most controversial subjects of the vinous world. Isn't greatness in wine, much like a profound expression of art or music, something very personal and subjective? As much as I agree that the appreciation and enjoyment of art, music, or wine is indeed personal, high quality in wine, as in art and music, does tend to be subject to widespread agreement (except for the occasional contrarian). Few art aficionados would disagree with the fact that Picasso, Rembrandt, Bacon, Matisse, Van Gogh, or Michelangelo were extraordinary artists. And though certainly some dissenters can be found regarding the merits of composers such as Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms, or in the more modern era, such musicians/songwriters as Bob Dylan, the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones, the majority opinion is that these people have produced exceptional music.
It is no different with wine. Most wine drinkers agree that the legendary wines of the 20th century -- 1945 Mouton Rothschild, 1945 Haut-Brion, 1947 Cheval Blanc, 1947 Pètrus, 1961 Latour, 1982 Mouton Rothschild, 1982 Le Pin, 1982 Lèoville-Las-Cases, 1989 Haut-Brion, 1990 Margaux, and 1990 Pètrus, to name some of the most renowned red Bordeaux -- are profoundly riveting. Tasting is indeed subjective, and no one should feel forced to feign fondness for a work by Picasso or Beethoven, much less a bottle of 1961 Latour, but as with most of the finest things in life, there is considerable agreement as to what represents high quality.
Two things that all can agree on are the origin and production of the world's finest wines. Great wines emanate from well-placed vineyards with microclimates favorable to specific types of grapes. Profound wines, whether they are from France, Italy, Spain, California, or Australia, are also the product of conservative viticultural practices that emphasize low yields, and physiologically rather than analytically ripe fruit. After 27 years spent tasting over 300,000 wines, I have never tasted a superb wine that was made from underripe fruit. Does anyone enjoy the flavors of an underripe orange, peach, apricot, or cherry? Low yields and ripe fruit are essential for the production of extraordinary wines, yet it is amazing how many wineries never seem to understand this fundamental principle.
In addition to the commonsense approach of harvesting mature fruit, and pruning to discourage the vine from overproducing, the winery's individual winemaking philosophy is of paramount importance. Exceptional wines (whether they be red, white, or sparkling) emerge from a similar philosophy, which includes the following: 1) permit the vineyard's terroir (soil, microclimate, distinctiveness) to express itself; 2) allow the purity and characteristics of the grape varietal, or blend of varietals, to be faithfully represented in the wine; 3) produce a wine without distorting the personality and character of a particular vintage by excessive manipulation; 4) follow an uncompromising, noninterventionist winemaking philosophy that eschews the food-processing, industrial mindset of high-tech winemaking -- in short, give the wine a chance to make itself naturally without the human element attempting to sculpt or alter the wine's intrinsic character; 5) follow a policy of minimal handling, clarification, and treatment of the wine so that what is placed in the bottle represents as natural an expression of the vineyard, varietal, and vintage as is possible. In keeping with this overall philosophy, winemakers who attempt to reduce such traumatic clarification procedures as fining and filtration, while also lowering sulphur levels (which can dry out a wine's fruit, bleach color from a wine, and exacerbate the tannin's sharpness), produce wines with far more aromatics and flavors, as well as more enthralling textures. These are wines that offer consumers their most compelling and rewarding drinking experiences. Assuming there is a relatively broad consensus as to how the world's finest wines originate, what follows is my working definition of an exceptional wine. In short, what are the characteristics of a great wine?
Lamentably, terroir has become such a politically correct buzzword that in some circles it is an egregious error not to utter some profound comments about finding "a sense of somewhereness" when tasting a Vosne-Romanée-Les Malconsorts or a Latricières-Chambertin. Leading terroirists make a persuasive and often eloquent case about the necessity of finding, as one observer puts it, "the true voice of the land" in order for a wine to be legitimized.
Yet like so many things about wine, especially tasting it, there is no scientific basis for anything the terroirists propose. What they argue is what most Burgundians and owners of France's finest vineyards give lip service to -- that for a wine to be authentic and noble it must speak of its terroir.
On the other side of this issue are the "realists," or should I call them modernists. They suggest that terroir is merely one of many factors that influence a wine's style, quality, and character. Soil, exposition, and microclimate (terroir) most certainly impart an influence, but so do the following:
Rootstock -- Is it designed to produce prolific or small crop levels?
Yeasts -- Does the winemaker use the vineyard's wild yeasts or are commercial yeasts employed? Every yeast, wild or commercial, will give a wine a different set of aromatics, flavor, and texture.
Yields and Vine Age -- High yields result in diluted wine. Low yields, usually less than two tons per acre or 35-40 hectoliters per hectare, result in wines with much more concentration and personality. Additionally, young vines have a tendency to overproduce, whereas old vines produce small berries and less wine. Crop thinning is often employed with younger vineyards to increase the level of concentration.
Harvest Philosophy -- Is the fruit picked underripe (with greener, cooler red fruit flavors) to preserve more acidity, or fully ripe (with darker fruit flavors and lower acids) to emphasize the lushness and opulence of a given varietal?
Vinification Techniques and Equipment -- There are an amazing number of techniques that can change the wine's aromas and flavors. Moreover, equipment choice (different presses, destemmers, etc.) can have a profound influence on the final wine.
Elevage (or the wine's upbringing) -- Is the wine brought up in oak barrels, concrete vats, stainless-steel vats, or large oak vats (which the French call foudres)? What is the percentage of new oak? Of these elements, only oak exerts an influence on the wine's character. Additionally, transferring wine (racking) from one container to another has an immense impact on a wine's bouquet and flavor. Is the wine allowed to remain in long contact with its lees (believed to give the wine more aromatic complexity and fullness)? Or is it racked frequently for fear of picking up an undesirable lees smell?
Fining and Filtration -- Even the most concentrated and profound wines that terroirists consider quintessential examples of the soil can be eviscerated and stripped of their personality and richness by excessive fining and filtering. Does the winemaker treat the wine with kid gloves, or is the winemaker a manufacturer/processor bent on sculpturing the wine?
Bottling Date -- Does the winemaker bottle early to preserve as much fruit as possible, or does he bottle later to give the wine a more mellow, aged character? Undoubtedly, the philosophy of when to bottle can radically alter the character of a wine.
Cellar Temperature and Sanitary Conditions -- Some wine cellars are cold and others are warm. Different wines emerge from cold cellars (development is slower and the wines are less prone to oxidation) than from warm cellars (the maturation of aromas and flavors is more rapid and the wines are quicker to oxidize). Additionally, are the wine cellars clean or dirty?
These are just a handful of factors that can have extraordinary impact on the style, quality, and personality of a wine. As the modernists claim, the choices that man himself makes, even when they are unquestionably in pursuit of the highest quality, can contribute far more to a wine's character than the vineyard's terroir.
If you are wondering where I stand on terroir, I do believe it is an important component in the production of fine wine. However, I would argue that the most persuasive examples of terroir do not arise from Burgundy, but rather, from white wine varietals planted in Alsace and Germany. If one is going to argue terroir, the wine has to be made from exceptionally low yields; fermented with only the wild yeasts that inhabit the vineyard; brought up in a neutral medium, such as old barrels, cement tanks, or stainless steel; given minimal cellar treatment; and bottled with little or no fining or filtration.
Terroir, as used by many of its proponents, is often a convenient excuse for upholding the status quo. If one accepts the fact that terroir is everything and is essential to legitimize a wine, how should consumers evaluate the wines from Burgundy's most famous grand cru vineyard, Chambertin? This 32-acre vineyard boasts 23 different proprietors. But only a handful of them appear committed to producing an extraordinary wine. Everyone agrees this is a hallowed piece of ground, but I can think of only a few producers -- Domaine Leroy, Domaine Ponsot, Domaine Rousseau, Domaine des Chézeaux (Ponsot made the wine for Chézeaux) -- that produce wines that merit the stratospheric reputation of this vineyard. Yet the Chambertins of three of these producers, Leroy, Ponsot, and Rousseau, are completely different in style. The Ponsot wine was the most elegant, supple, and round; Leroy's is the most tannic, backward, concentrated, and meaty; and Rousseau's is the darkest- colored, most dominated by new oak, and most modern in style, taste, and texture. As for the other 18 or 20 producers (and I am not even thinking about the various négociant offerings), what Burgundy wine enthusiasts are likely to encounter on retailers' shelves ranges from mediocre to appallingly thin and insipid. What wine, may I ask, speaks for the soil of Chambertin? Is it the wine of Leroy, the wine of Ponsot, the wine of Rousseau?
Arguments such as this can be made with virtually any significant Burgundy vineyard. Consider Corton-Charlemagne and four of its most celebrated producers. The firm of Faiveley owns the most prized parcel atop this famous hill, and they make a compellingly elegant Corton-Charlemagne. Stylistically, it is the antithesis of the super-concentrated, lavishly oaky, broadly flavored, alcoholic Corton-Charlemagne made by Louis Latour. Again, Domaine Leroy makes a backward, hard, tough Corton-Charlemagne that resembles a tannic red more than a white wine. Domaine Coche-Dury makes a wine with extraordinary mineral components, as well as remarkable richness, unctuosity, and opulence where the oak takes a back seat to the wine's fruit and texture. Which of these Corton-Charlemagnes has that notion of "somewhereness" that is raised by the terroirists to validate the quality of a vineyard?
Are terroirists kindergarten intellectuals who should be doing more tasting and less talking? Of course not. But they can be accused of naïvely swallowing the tallest tale in winedom. On the other hand, the realists should recognize that no matter how intense and concentrated a wine can be from a modest vineyard in Givry, it will never have the sheer complexity and class of a Vosne-Romanée grand cru from a conscientious producer.
In conclusion, it is fundamental that no great wine can be made from mediocre terroir, and any top wine must, to some degree, reflect its place of origin. Yet wine enthusiasts need to think of terroir as you do salt, pepper, and garlic. In many dishes they can represent an invaluable component, imparting wonderful aromas and flavors. But if consumed alone, they are usually difficult to swallow. Moreover, all the hyperventilation over terroir obscures the most important issue of all -- identifying and discovering those producers who make wines worth drinking and savoring!
These producers, to a man and woman, all have an enviable passion, intensity, and commitment to hard work. They refuse to compromise, and they recognize their responsibilities as the custodians of special pieces of property. Their sole purpose is to deliver to the consumer the most natural, uncompromised, unmanipulated expression of their vineyard, vintage, and varietal that is humanly possible. For the most part, the vast majority of the men and women behind great wines are humble servants of Mother Nature.
Most of the producers in this book are, I am sure, capable of pursuing more lucrative careers in other fields of work, but they are wedded to the concept that wine is not a business but a culture that ties together man, nature, and land. It embodies civilization at its finest, and is capable of bringing together diverse people to share the joy of a beverage that has been an important component of every major civilization in the Western world.
Copyright © 2005 by Robert M. Parker, Jr.
Excerpted from The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker Copyright © 2005 by Robert M. Parker. Excerpted by permission.
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