Sunset in Oakville

Sunset in Oakville

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Why a wine tastes the way it does.


A wine tastes the way it does because of its unique terroir, the underlying grape(s) from which it is made, and the numerous winegrowing routines practiced by the producer. Additionally, there is near universal agreement that the primary determinant of wine’s taste is the grape varietal from which it is made. Most wine enthusiasts know that each grape has a unique profile, a distinctive quality that is determined by its structural components (acidity, tannins, dryness, and alcohol). And it is from those elements that a wine’s very distinctive color, aroma, flavor, texture and ultimate body style are revealed. 

American and other New World wines get their names from the specific grape from which it is primarily made.  They are known as varietal wines, and Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon are the more popular examples.  Appellation wines get their names from the region where they reside, and in many cases they are typically a blend of several or more grapes.  Bordeaux, Chablis, Chianti, Rioja and Châteauneuf-du-Pape are some of the better known.  (The latter is approved for up to thirteen different grapes!)   Wines can also be given a unique, Proprietary name by its producer.  Joseph Phelps’ Insignia, Penfold’s Grange, and the Mondavi/Rothschild’s Opus One are successful, super-premium labels.   

While it might be convenient to think of varietally labeled wines as only being vinified from one grape, the reality is that such wines need only be made from 75% to 85% of the specific grape to conform to their particular regulatory requirements.  Wimpy Merlots can receive more backbone with the addition of Cabernet Sauvignon, while a tannic Cabernet can be softened by the inclusion of Merlot.  High toned, grassy Sauvignon Blancs can be tamed with a dollop of Semillon, and one dimensional Pinot Noirs can be enhanced with Petite Sirah or other dense reds.  One exceedingly popular $20 Pinot Noir from California has been alleged to contain—believe it or not—some Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Grenache. 

Of course, all this stylistic tweaking and/or outright blending is done to reach the flavorsome results that wine enthusiasts have come to expect. And in the pursuit of delivering what the customer wants, winemakers have the ability to enhance any or all of the wine’s structural and stylistic components.  They can add spice to the flavor, perfume to the nose, smoothness to the texture, vigor to the body, and length to the finish.   

If you have yet to encounter your ideal blend, are you up to the adventure of creating your own blended work of art?   One that is sculpted for your fine tuned, nuanced palate?  Even prior to being bottled at the winery?   A brief surf through the Internet reveals that many California (and other New and Old World) wineries offer just such a service.  You can release your inner winemaker at custom designed seminars, blending camps and private parties that are offered at many wineries.

In the Napa Valley, Franciscan, Conn Creek, Judd Hill, Raymond, Freemark Abbey, Ravenswood, Rutherford Hill appear to offer one version or another of creating your own blend.  Those of you residing in other areas should research to determine if anything is available nearby. I have yet to visit a winery for that specific reason, but it could be time well spent and exceedingly entertaining, if not outright educational.

Lastly, if you’re as daring as my long time, food and wine and golfing, close personal friend Dan Beswick, blending wines is as near as those few bottles leftover from last night’s dinner party. He is fearless about fashioning them into his own Blend du Beswick.  Moreover, I’ve watched him boldly tone down hyperactive Rosés, and smooth out palate thumping reds, often in the company of ten or more luncheon guests.  While I have yet to attempt that vinous alchemy, particularly in the company of others, Dan now inspires me to maybe give it a try in the future.