In my previous post I described various roadmap markers encountered while travelling the circuitous and open-ended road of Wine Appreciation. The starting point was understanding a wine’s primary structural aspects, its building blocks, (acidity, sweetness, alcohol and tannins), and how those, in turn, are determined by the underlying grapes from which it is made. This was crucial inasmuch as American and most New World wines are primarily labelled and distinguished by the underlying grape.
But that information was of limited assistance when I tried to understand how European wines identified and differentiated themselves between countries, as well as between regions of the same country. My next offramp took me to the notion of Appellation: where a wine is produced, its birthplace, its unique origins. Appellation is a promise of authenticity. You’re getting The Real Thing, not a knockoff. (Involved enthusiasts are also familiar with the underlying grapes, but that information is secondary to the guarantee of its provenance.)
That alerted me to the realization that there was more to American wines than simply knowing the underlying grapes. I doubled back to the American Viticultural Area system (AVA). The AVA terroir-based system, inspired by Europe’s Appellation system, is a combination of a wine’s origins, geographical peculiarities and the underlying grape(s) from which it is made. All this leads wine buyers, you and me, (as well as producers) to the challenge of differentiating identically labelled varietal wines from alternative and/or competing AVAs.
I could be wrong, but my gut feel about casual, somewhat “with-it” wine drinkers, is that most of us are primarily (if not totally) satisfied by one or two points of any given wine’s characteristics. That oak-lavished, buttery Chardonnay or that rich, ripe Cabernet fruit bomb delivers most of what we want and have come to expect from them. Similarly, as a Sauvignon Blanc fan, all I usually I look for, and am satisfied with, are the telltale lemon/lime/grapefruit aromas and flavors coupled with a long, crisp, oak-free finish.
But having said that, there are times when I, and maybe some of you, feel adventurous, and get in the hunt for wines with special qualities and a unique birthplace. That search for specificity begins with a peeling back of the various AVA, and Sub AVA, layers. For example, a Pinot Noir with the all-inclusive, state-wide, California AVA, should receive far less interest than, say, one labeled as Sonoma County. And within that, one might look deeper to Sonoma Coast, and beyond that, to one that could be Estate Bottled, or possible even one with an established, well known Single Vineyard identify.
Estate Bottled wines, and there are not many of them, are made with grapes from the same location and are controlled throughout the producer’s vineyard and winemaking process including fermenting, aging and on-site bottling.
On the other hand, Single Vineyard wines, and there are quite a few of those, are distinguished by originating from a unique vineyard site, which the owner or producer claims has very special qualities that are not, and cannot, be duplicated by other producers anywhere else. (Think Terroir). It is here where producers set themselves apart from competitors, and it is here where those in the hunt, should do the cherry-picking.
Finally, there’s no arguing about the benefits of an Estate bottled wine, but there are some who feel that the unique aspects of Single Vineyard wines are more marketing hype than true viticultural/vinicultural distinctions. The pricey, Cult Club waiting lists of many Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs tell a different story. In either case, good hunting, proceed with caution, and be sure you can adequately assess what’s in your stemware.