29 April 2009

Dead-blogging: Viret 1999 Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages Saint-Maurice “Maréotis”

[winery interior]Clos du Paradis “Domaine Viret” 1999 Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages Saint-Maurice “Maréotis” (Rhône) – It’s never easy to decide when to open a bottle of ageable wine. It’s even less easy when the wine has little track record and even fewer peers. Even for the winemaker, questions of ageability are rarely more than an educated guess.

So it’s with a bit of trepidation that I open this bottle, hand-carried from the winery back in 2001. It was an intriguing visit for a number of reasons. First was the domaine’s singularity, as it was at the time (and may still be) the only grower-producer in the appellation, the rest of the production of which is provided by cooperatives. I tasted a few of those, and they were fine in an anonymous but flavorful generic Rhône-ish fashion, but Viret’s wines were an entirely different matter: highly ambitious, if not always – at that very early date – completely focused.

But the second reason was even more compelling: the winery’s wholesale investment with a philosophy known as cosmoculture, a practice tailor-made for those who think biodynamism is a little too conventional. I spent a lot of time tasting wine, but even more listening to lectures on circles of force and dowsing, examining the alignment of Stonehenge-like monuments in the vineyard, and marveling at the cathedral – a fairly literal one – constructed to serve as the winemaking facility. And while the Virets were both very nice and extremely sincere, I spent much of my time vacillating between wondering if they were completely nuts, and marveling at the qualitative triple-jump their wines achieved vis-à-vis the cooperatives’ versions. Ultimately, I decided that it didn’t really matter if they were nuts or not. The wines spoke for themselves.

Anyway, enough background. What about the wine? It’s a grenache-syrah blend (more of the former than the latter) from grapes that have undergone a little passérilage (desiccation) on the vine, made and matured in a mix of cask and stainless steel. At the time, these vines were barely over a decade old, and my original note expressed concern that too much might have been asked of these very young vines.

That fear hasn’t been realized, and the wine is aging better than I would have guessed. It’s powerful right from the start, and heavy, but not so weighted-down that it’s imbalanced or ponderous. Aromas are classic if one imagines a blend of Southern and Northern Rhône characteristics (given that there’s no modern basis for Saint-Maurice typicity on which to judge this wine): meat, leather, Provençal herbs, dark soil, underbrush, sun-leathered dark fruit that has lost its “fruit,” and so forth. As the wine airs, more and more smoked meat emerges.

Texturally, it presses against the palate without being overly oppressive, in waves of leather than alternate between an animalistic fuzz and a harder, more mineralized expression. There’s still quite a bit of tannin (though it’s supple and fully ripened), and just enough acidity to hold everything together, but not a hint of intrusive alcohol anywhere. Structurally, every indication is that this wine is just past the midpoint of its evolution, with nothing but excellent prospects for the future.

I wonder, though. The “fruit,” if one can call it that in wines of this type, seems a lot more resolved than the structure. I’ve no fears that this will decline anytime soon…even if it is mature, the plateau is going to be exceedingly long…but I think a strong argument could be made that it’s not going to get better in the future, though there will certainly be changes. (In fact, I appear to be making such an argument.) Given its current makeup, I’d expect more soy and old meat as the structure recedes, but also more angularity from that structure, which would disjoint the wine somewhat. But please note that I’ve been wrong about this wine’s future before, and might be again in this instance. It makes a very compelling argument for itself, in any case, and whether or not it requires more time to develop that argument may be no more than minor quibbling at this point.

The wine changes little over the course of the evening, aside from an escalating appeal for vinous carnivores, and traces left at room temperature and unprotected from oxygen for a full day are still quite drinkable, albeit much less interesting than the previous day’s liquid. I serve it with pork from the grill, dry-rubbed with alder-smoked salt and smoked paprika (among other, less important spices), and somewhat further smoked by the addition of rehydrated chipotles to the coals during the grilling. The match is just about perfect, though I think any low-acid style of barbecued cow or pig would find favor with the wine…and conventionally grilled meats would hardly be amiss, either. (4/09)

21 April 2009

Untangled & unencumbered

[wrestling statues]There’s a saying borrowed from academe that’s broadly applicable to the world of wine chatter, which I’ll paraphrase:: “the reason the arguments are so intense is that the stakes are so small.” And so the tempest in a decanter created by a pair of blog posts (here and here, some aftermath here and here) isn’t all that surprising. This is about as juicy as wine scandals get: accusations of hypocrisy, of ethical breaches, of abusive moderation, of plain old jackassery, all laid at the altar of the high priest of wine criticism…maybe someone should film it with a shaky hand-held camera. Perhaps with a few gratuitous shots of flatulent dogs.

It’s an interesting conflict, no doubt, but the more worrisome component of the controversy is the shaky foundation on which it rests. In the comments that follow the two blog posts, and on the linked forum thread, there’s a persistent but passionately-expressed insistence that the root of the problem is bias, whether actual or potential.

This is ridiculous.

I’ve written about this before, and at length. And while this will be an opportune moment to revisit some of those arguments, the current brouhaha offers an additional perspective.

Note: this essay deals primarily with critics, not with writers in general. I’ve explained the difference in detail here, and almost all wine communicators engage in both, but a shorthand way to differentiate the two is: writers inform, critics judge. Bias, even if one accepts the argument that it is bad, is largely irrelevant when considering the primary work of the writer. If interesting or useful information has been communicated, then the writer has succeeded, whether or not bias plays a role.

Are biases disqualifying? It’s very easy to answer this one: if they are, then there can be no such thing as a critic, because everyone has biases. Everyone. Preference is as natural a human quality as breathing. To be sure, self-awareness is necessary; beware the critic who tells you that they lack bias, because they’re lying to you and – more importantly – to themselves. Transparency is equally crucial. With the widespread adoption of the internet, the only actual limit on it – the lack of a ready venue in which to be transparent – has been eliminated. It would be to the benefit of everyone if all critics made a habit of publishing their biases for all to read. For they most certainly have them.

But this is a bit of a diversion. People who complain about bias aren’t, believe it or not, actually concerned with bias. They’re concerned with entanglement and encumbrance. For example, there’s obviously no functional problem with a critic who prefers Zind-Humbrecht to Trimbach as a result of their internal biases, but there is a problem with one who either is, or believes herself to be, unable to express the opposite viewpoint due to personal or economic pressure. It’s completely natural to prefer Sancerre blanc to Marlborough sauvignon blanc, but it’s potentially* problematic if that preference is compensated outside a journalistic revenue stream, and it’s even worse if that compensation is anticipatory.

[Colleoni statue]*I say “potentially” in the first case, because it isn’t clear that all forms of compensation would be problematic. Accepting an invitation to speak at a world conference on sauvignon blanc would seem to be OK. Accepting an invitation to speak before the Society for the Promotion of Sancerre is probably still OK, as long as there’s no attempt to control the critic’s message for the purposes of marketing. Accepting an invitation to write marketing copy for the Society for the Promotion of Sancerre? Most definitely problematic under some ethical schemes, though the society’s use of the critic’s published work for that purpose would obviously be fine, subject to the rules set down by the critic’s publisher and the principles of fair use and copyright as they exist in the relevant realms.

For those who haven’t thought much about the issue, the obvious solution is to remove all potential sources of entanglement. In other words, a sort of enforced asceticism, though with free-flowing alcohol. Pushed to its ideal (that is, purest) form, that would mean cutting off ties between the critic and all winemakers, importers, marketers, distributors, sommeliers, retailers, restaurateurs, other critics, etc.

The problems with this level of retreat from real life are obvious. From a practical standpoint, the acquisition of wines to criticize (especially hard-to-source wines) becomes very difficult without contacts in the industry, and the acquisition of knowledge with which to better-characterize the objects of criticism becomes nearly impossible. (There’s an expansion of that argument here.) A cynic will wonder how often requiring quasi-monastic professional existences – especially when the divorce is from the field that a critic loves so much they’ve decided to make it their life’s work – is successful in preventing lapses. Consider: much of the fun of wine is sharing it with like-minded enthusiasts. Must the critic eschew relationships with enthusiasts who have themselves become entangled with any commercial aspect of wine? It would seem the safest bet, because entanglements can exist via third parties, yet who makes wine their career other than its greatest enthusiasts? Lacking the ability to make contact with other enthusiasts, the critic’s life is a lonely one indeed. Loneliness can lead to resentment. And isn’t active resentment of the subject of criticism a far more dangerous bias than having lunch with Olivier Humbrecht?

Ah, but what about restaurant critics, one might ask? Some (certainly not all) cloak themselves in anonymity, avoid all situations at which they might encounter chefs or restaurant owners, and dine on their publisher’s dime (although these days, said recompense rarely covers the entirety of a critic’s work). What’s wrong with that model?

First of all, restaurant critics are the only critics asked to take these steps on a regular basis. In no other field of criticism is this level of separation, and in fact outright deception, required or expected. Second, anonymity rarely works for long (if at all), as the photos of allegedly unknown critics hanging in restaurant kitchens all over the world will attest. And third, does anyone think that restaurant criticism is a clear order of excellence above and beyond that of other fields? If the answer to that question is anything other than an enthusiastic “yes,” maybe it’s worth questioning how much value enforced separation and rigid constraints bring to the consumer.

A caveat: I’m not arguing that there isn’t obvious potential value in anonymity (which is just a particularly obvious version of enforced separation), as anyone who remembers Ruth Reichl’s visits to Le Cirque knows. But the value of pretend invisibility is limited, both by time and by effect. Of far, far more importance is that the critic be good. Being anonymous will not help a lousy critic become more useful to the consumer. Nor will being free of all possible potential conflicts of interest.

Given all this, it seems obvious that the real question is not whether a critic has biases, or even if there are entanglements and encumbrances, but to what extent they affect the work. This, incidentally, is why revelation and transparency are more important than impossible-to-achieve independence; the reader can, with knowledge that contextualizes a critic’s work, make an informed judgment as to that work’s worth. Thus, a compromised critic will not escape detection, even if consumers’ reaction to that knowledge will differ. More importantly, a judgment as to a critic’s quality will be made primarily on the quality of the work, rather than suspicion and rumors of actual, perceived, or imaginary conflicts. What matters is not why a critic lauds a wine, but that said praise is of utility to the consumer. (This is all laid out in greater detail here.)

[sagrada familia crucifix]And now, the new perspective on this well-worn (at least by me) issue that I promised several hundred paragraphs ago. It’s useful to ask whence the motivation to demand absurd levels of purity comes. I think it comes from a fundamental understanding of what critics do. They are, very simply, paid to opine. That’s it. They may, in the course of their opinion-mongering, do other things – which is why most critics are more properly identified as hybrid critics/writers – but when they’re paid to be a critic, they’re paid to critique. To render judgment. To offer an opinion.

Opinions, judgments, critiques…they’re all 100% subjective. Full stop, end of story. There may indeed be greater value in informed opinion, but the inherent subjectivity of a critical judgment is unassailable. I don’t think that some consumers understand this. There often appears to be a belief – and reading the comments in the above-linked blog posts and forum threads shows that this belief is widespread, though (revealingly) no one can agree on the specifics – that there is some sort of “more objective” version of an opinion that is made less likely by the existence of bias or entanglement. This, too, is nonsense. The opinion swayed by externalities is no more or less subjective than the pure and honest one, even though it’s different. So if there’s a desire for less subjectivity, it’s a futile one, because what’s asked is impossible. All the consumer can expect of the critic is to tell the truth and to say what she actually thinks.

In addition to an ongoing conflation of two conflicting ideas (objectivity and subjectivity), there’s a misunderstanding of the preparation and mindset fundamental to the non-accidental critic. Accusations of inexorable bias (“certainly a critic can’t judge wine X fairly if they’ve had lunch with the winemaker”) rest upon a foundational assumption that the critic is unaware of these potential sources of conflict, that they will inevitably come as an insoluble surprise to the critic, and that they will thus lead to unavoidable compromise. This assumption is particularly insulting as it appears to think or expect very little of critics. Any smart critic knows all this going in. Any ethical critic has thought about, is thinking about, and will continue to think about these issues and their chosen responses to them. Any good critic will make it clear to both consumer and source where their boundaries are. Again, transparency helps: while critics are revealing their biases, they should also detail their practices.

A sensible consumer would not presume a predilection towards corruption. Instead, they’d conclude that a critic has thought about these issues and deals with them on a daily basis. That to the extent possible given the realities of her career, she will try to act ethically and honestly. That she will not lie to consumers in order to gain advantage over them. That she will not act unethically in order to gain advantage from her suppliers or her publishers. And so forth. These conclusions will be tested and retested in an atmosphere of natural suspicion, to be sure, but it is rather obnoxious to assume, without evidence, that a predilection to unethical behavior is beyond a critic’s control. One does not create a being of pure ethics by encaging that being in some sort of procedural deprivation chamber. The motivation to ethical behavior cannot be imposed from without, but must be generated (and regenerated) from within. If externally-imposed ethics were entirely or even largely effective, there would be some societal evidence thereof. There’s not, except to the contrary.

Another note: publications most certainly can impose their own ethical restraints on critics. This is a contractual arrangement, voluntary in both directions. But these days, they’re more often an attempt to address the concerns of the consumer, not the work itself, for all the reasons I’ve detailed above.

In fact, most critics would laugh – albeit with a certain sadness – at the assumption that their loyalties could be bought, no matter what anyone else suspects. By taking on the role of a critic, they’ve taken on the potential (and inevitable) conflicts even before they’ve published a single word of criticism. They’ve accepted that they must deal with those who will attempt to corrupt them and those who will always believe them corrupt. And they’ve understood that their work will be judged in such a way that subverting their judgment to external influences can only damage their integrity and their reputation. Critics who have sold out – and they exist – always pay some sort of price. But it’s unfair to make ethical critics pay it along with them in a futile attempt to satisfy impossible preconditions.

As I’ve said with more precision in my essays on ethics, objectivity, and independence, the search for a visible armor of incorruptibility is a hopeless one. Not only because ethical behavior is an internal, rather than external, property of the critic, but because it’s not what the consumer actually wants. The most ethically monastic critic is not necessarily the best critic, and vice-versa. Surely what the consumer really wants are skill, efficacy, and utility. The endless focus on bias, on entanglement, and on the appearance of or possibility for conflict distracts from the key question a consumer must ask of any critic’s work: is it useful?

Update: The always-eloquent Jancis Robinson, who is (aggravatingly) better at what we do than any of the rest of us, offers her own thoughts on this issue. And I note with some pleasure that, for the most part, she appears to agree with me.

17 April 2009

Notes note

This blog has been unusually heavy on tasting notes of late, but a reminder: the real laundry-list-of-fruits-and-vegetables action remains over on oenoLog, the sister blog. Or brother. Eccentric uncle? I'm not really sure. Whoever it is, he/she/it sure drinks a lot.

16 April 2009

The meme remains la même

[biking sculpture]The future of wine writing is not blogging.

OK, so now that I’ve pissed off just about everyone likely to be reading this, let me explain…

The world of wine, and especially the world of wine writing, benefits from a multitude of voices. There’s no doubt of this. One of the least important but still sad effects of the ongoing (though long-inevitable) decline and fall of newspapers is the loss of the wine coverage that usually precedes their demise. Winemaking regions derive special benefit from vibrant, locally-focused coverage, but there’s plenty of value to be found elsewhere. In my own market of Boston, for example, there’s barely any wine writing to be found. Nationally, Food & Wine no longer has a wine editor. (Why not just call it Food?) I could go on…

Many think the “2.0” version of the web, long in ascendance if not always in fulfillment of its hype, will replace what’s been lost. There are reasons to doubt this, which I’ll iterate in a moment. But more importantly, this lays the burden of hope on the wrong recipients. Blogs (or tweets, or whatever else that might follow) aren’t going to replace newsprint wine writing. But bloggers might.

Confused yet?

In terms of creating a collaborative, multi-directional wine experience – the promise usually trumpeted by proponents of Wine 2.0 – bloggers are actually rather late to the party. Wine fora have played in this realm for a long time: alt.food.wine, the wine communities on CompuServe and Prodigy, the original Wine Lovers’ Discussion Group, the Mark Squires forum (now part of the all-powerful eBob empire), and on and on.

Over the many years of their existence, a few things have been learned about the potential advantages and disadvantages of much-hyped 2.0 era. For example: while some of the fora were “communities of equals,” others worked on the expert model. The latter proved to be the stickier of the two concepts. The former are especially prone to splits, offshoots, declines, and all the normal trends and lifespans of online communities, while the latter provide a consistent draw, even as participants come and go. It’s now clear that to hold a community together over the long term, it helps to have a draw aside from the community itself. For while a community can provide great value (especially given quality contributors), the seemingly inevitable human desire for authorities has remained more powerful. This is a slightly dismaying outcome, but the numbers don’t lie.

Corollary to this, both types of forum tend to attract and/or develop their own authorities, and from this a second lesson can be drawn. Authorities are a mixed blessing, because while they bring elevated value to a community’s knowledge, they skew the discourse of the community from many-to-many towards several-to-many or one-to-many. Moreover, they’re especially prone to lead an exodus as that authority grows, for reasons both good (a desire to monetize their utility) and less so (conflict between competing authorities). People point to blogs and other, newer media as an exercise in social communication, but what’s the actual draw of a successful blog? First and foremost, it’s the authority or authorities that helm it. Without them and the audience they create, the community that coalesces and participates would form elsewhere. And were the community uninterested in authorities, they’d be on a community-of-equals wine forum. Since the numbers show that they’re not, there’s good reason to believe that, whatever they say, they’re still interested in some sort of authority…maybe not as the entirety of the meal, but at least as the centerpiece of the dish.

Additionally, while the value of fora is often professed to be the collegiality of its participants, their actual success or failure relies more on the more tangible benefits it provides (which, in the case of wine communities, means information about specific wines, regions, producers, and businesses). Collegiality is unhelpful when no one can answer a question, and as a result people naturally gravitate towards communities of greater expertise. That swell of numbers is followed by an increase in tangible value, which in turn attracts greater numbers, and so forth. Similarly, a decline in information leads to a decline in participation, and vice-versa. Wine fora have not proved immune to Darwin. Again, the lesson that can be drawn by blogs and other divergent forms is that while collegiality, community, and population matter, it’s the quality of information that matters most.

But the success of a blog is not measured by its population, at least not in the way a forum’s success is. Yes, success is measured by traffic – and comments matter – but the physical format of a blog places far greater importance on an original post than the comments that follow. Most of the really successful blogs are one-person shows, more or less. In comparison to a wine forum, then, a blog is actually less egalitarian by its very design, whatever the intent or motivation of the host. (Twitter is a little different, but comes with certain inherent limitations of its own.) So again, we return to the essential element: the blogger him- or herself. As Johnny Carson once said regarding the success or failure of late night talk shows, it’s not about the style or the guests, “it’s about the person behind the desk.” He could have been talking about blogs.

[man blowing glass]The trajectory of successful bloggers is, largely, a common one. From tentative and overtly humble beginnings, with success and greater access comes greater authority, a willingness to take risks and be controversial (or a deliberate choice to do so; controversy is always good for traffic) from the perspective of an outsider, and finally an assumption of authority and controversy from the perspective of an insider, as an acknowledged authority. (Sometimes, this leads to problems, but not always.) The progression from voice-in-the-wilderness to authority and leadership is a change that happens to the blogger, not the blog, and will be reflected in an historical survey of the posts. For those whose primary publication outlet is a blog, it’s nearly always true that early entries will be modern, blog-style posts (pithy, link-ridden), but that later entries look an awful lot more like traditional print columns. They’re longer. They’re more authoritative and declarative. They educate or provoke, but at greater length, and yet with less elaborate justification for each point of potential controversy; authority is assumed by the writer. Sometimes, actual journalism – research, sourcing, fact-checking – creeps in, born of both desire and necessity.

This is all to the good, by the way. There’s a place and a future for the sound bite format, to be sure, but as a different kind of webslinger once learned, with power comes responsibility. This is no less true for bloggers than it is for journalists in other media. In fact, the maturation of the wine blogosphere demands this evolution if it is to supplant or be coequal with, rather than aspire to, the power of other forms of media.

These days, the most successful bloggers of all get to move on. Not that they abandon their blogs (though some do), but rather that they gain access to other media. Newspapers (such as they are in these times), magazines, even books…the final step in new media success is often measured by joining the old.

Or at least, that has been true up until now, and may continue to be true for a while yet. In the future? It’s hard to say, especially given a rapid rate of technological and societal change. My suspicion – and it’s based on little more than a hunch, though one founded on several decades of experience in different forms of new media – is that it will change. New media will develop its own measures of success that render irrelevant those of the old media. (This, I hasten to add, is hardly an original thought on my part. Though it may be an overly optimistic one.)

So why, then, do I say that the future of wine writing is not the blog, but rather the blogger?

As noted earlier, there’s hardly a difference between the most successful wine blogs and the most successful print wine columns; other than the physical format, they look and act pretty much the same (and of course, most print columns are read online anyway). The one major difference is that almost all blogs lack an editor. Editors can be a mixed blessing, to be sure, but as the format continues to mature, the lack of them is going to be an issue for someone. Controversy is all very exciting, but inaccuracy (and worse, defamation) can be permanently damaging, and sooner or later someone’s going to pay a price for doing something that a good editor would never have let them do.

But the thing with professional editing is that it costs money. As, it’s important to add, does wine blogging. At the very least, someone has to pay for server space and traffic. Then, as authority and success brings their accordant responsibility, the need of a blogger to explore their subject more deeply and/or broadly increases; this, too, is not without cost. Ads help, but as everyone in new media knows, they’re rarely remunerative enough to support the rigor of actual journalism. Until that changes, blogging remains primarily a hobbyist’s pursuit…which, incidentally, is exactly the situation print wine writing has found itself in for some time. Only a tiny, tiny number of bloggers and print wine writers can actually support themselves by writing about wine. However, there’s a difference: as more and more print writers disappear, things actually improve for the few that remain, but as the number of bloggers increases, competition for already-insufficient ad money will only escalate.

[sagrada familia detail]For any new media to take that last step to dominance of a category, someone’s going to have to pay for it. For now, a combination of ads and crossovers to old media are the patchwork covering the problem. That won’t continue. Will bloggers continue or improve their work, even if they’re losing money? Maybe some will, out of altruism or thanks to a hefty personal supply of otherwise-sourced funds (a/k/a a “real job”), but the lack of remuneration is no less damaging to the category than it is in the print world. First because it makes valuable authority available only to the otherwise wealthy (the effects of which can be seen rather clearly in the world of print wine criticism; just count the number of lawyers and doctors), and second because it reduces the quality of discourse by putting a cap on the necessary breadth and depth of knowledge that brings enlightenment to wine writing, whatever the medium. Authority matters. Knowledge matters. Experience matters. None are free.

The success of the blogs-and-beyond world of wine coverage has been presaged by the fractalization we’ve already seen among critics. What started with just a few voices entrusted with the vast general-interest audience has become a growing chorus of focused coverage from dedicated enthusiasts: Allen “Burghound” Meadows, Peter Liem, Parker’s new gang of hires, and so forth. This will continue, and more importantly will broaden to include writers, rather than just critics. Blogging in particular is ill-suited for comprehensive criticism of the type to which we’ve become accustomed, but it’s perfectly-suited for writing. Which is, by the way, what most of the best wine bloggers do, in lieu of standard criticism.

That said, blogs aren’t comprehensive. In fact, they can’t be; no one authority can, in our dizzying modern world of wine. A fanatical single-subject blogger may be able to provide quality coverage of that subject (whether it be a region, a grape, or some other field of interest), but it’s more likely that a subject of interest to a given audience must be surveyed across a wider selection of blogs. And if, as is even more likely, the audience has other interests than that single subject, this task increases. A connection must be made between blogs and their potential audience, but – like editing – marketing costs time and money. It is one thing to read Peter Liem’s blog for interesting Champagne commentary. It is a very different thing to read fifty blogs in search of similar information. And it is yet another thing to read 100 blogs in search of commentary on the full range of wines and subjects that interest an audience. Almost no one has that sort of time, especially – as noted earlier – as the content in which they’re interested broadens, deepens, and lengthens thanks to the ever-increasing skill of the bloggers.

This is why blogs themselves aren’t the future. The success of old media wine journals and most of their new media successors is intimately connected to their one-stop-shopping format, in which all available content is presented in a single location (be it physical or digital). But the necessary and desirably-expanding cloud of bloggers, all with something interesting to say, is – from a practical standpoint – impossible for anyone but the unemployed to find and follow, even with the best aggregators and filters.

Choices will have to be made. And those choices will be made based on the interest and authority commanded not by the blog format, nor by the appeal of new media or 2.0-era community coalescing around content, but by the source of the content: the bloggers themselves. In fact, the very expansion of authoritative blogging that leads to this revolution will act in opposition to its collaborative aspects, for given that time is inherently limited, a reader that chooses to participate is giving up an opportunity to read something else, and vice-versa.

In other words, the larger part of the audience will flock to authority, just like they’ve always done, and the focus will be more on that authority than on communitarian corollaries. The ever-evolving network provides interesting and worthwhile tools that old media lacks, but it does not change this fundamental principle. Fully collaborative environments exist and are of unquestioned appeal – at the very least, they’re better than their lack – but people still want their gurus. As before, the numbers don’t lie.

Or, as I believe someone may once have said: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

09 April 2009

Abbey road

[collioure café]A confusing study in contrasts, this well-known village is as compelling as it is baffling. Descending from the hills towards the blue expanse of the Mediterranean, one winds through pristine suburbs, then surprisingly rough commercial streets, before entering a tangled, touristy epicenter. The first section looks like any moneyed rural French suburb, the second like many a coastal town, but the third is an absolute riot of color and non-perpendicularity that seems like it would be better-placed in the Caribbean. And for such a tourist destination, signage and parking are a disaster.

…continued here.

04 April 2009

Coming up blanc

[poor fruit set at stony batter]A big tasting was put on by New Zealand Winegrowers, and the results are below. Part two is on pinot noir, part three covers riesling, and everything else is in part four. Notes are of the hit-and-run variety, due to the format, so read what follows with the necessary suspicion.

By way of disclosure, they loaded us up with Island Creek oysters, which would normally predispose me towards positivity. On the other hand, I only ate about two dozen, which isn’t even a running start for me.

Palliser Estate 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Martinborough) – Dense. Gooseberry with a significantly smoky component…or is it sulfur? Maybe a bit of both. Tropical fruit rinds and minerality (grey-toned), this wine is a little on the corpulent side. (3/09)

Monkey Bay 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Light green pepper, asparagus, sweet greenness continues on the finish. A diagonal wine. Ultimately insignificant. (3/09)

Matua Valley 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Gooseberry, a little papaya, and a Styrofoam finish (which is, blessedly, short). (3/09)

Nobilo “Regional Collection” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Clean. Watery. Green and yellow citrus rinds, plus grapefruit. Underripe and dilute. (3/09)

Babich 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Sugared apple, pineapple. A goofy toy wine, not to be taken seriously. (3/09)

Allan Scott 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Papery. Qualitatively, somewhere between innocuous and awful. (3/09)

Oyster Bay 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Seashell, green apple. Intense. Short finish. Not bad. (3/09)

The Crossings 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Dry exposed rock. Grassy. Ungenerous. Very mineral-driven, with a long finish. An uncompromising style. (3/09)

Stoneleigh 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Vivid pineapple, ripe green apple, grass. Sour plum wine on the finish. Weird. (3/09)

Saint Clair “Vicar’s Choice” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Clean, linear. Papaya, but not sweetly tropical. Light- to medium-bodied. Good, but only just. (3/09)

Goldwater 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Wairau Valley (Marlborough) – Intense gooseberry with lacings of asparagus. Crystalline. Rich but with sufficient acid, and thus balanced. Finishes greener than it starts. Good. (3/09)

Nautilus 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Simple. A little sweet, a little green. Banana candy finish. (3/09)

Villa Maria “Private Bin” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Electric green fuzz, clean green apple skin. Tight. Classic, but stretched thin. Not bad. (3/09)

Drylands 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Ripe red fruit, papaya, mango, and something that almost approaches lychee in its lurid stickiness. Way too sweet. (3/09)

Montana “Brancott” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc “Reserve” (Marlborough) – Cedar, ripe yellow plum. Soft, with a pinched midpalate, then expands. Very long, turning more expressive as it lingers, with a bitter edge emergent. This is a very polished style, perhaps too obviously so. (3/09)

Croney “Three Ton” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Mango sorbet. Juicy. Finishes weirdly bitter. (3/09)

Kennedy Point 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Green dust and paper. Flat. Dull. (3/09)

Saint Clair 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Intense pea and green bean aromas. Vivid. Fattens on the finish. (3/09)

Spy Valley 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Neon green aromas, ripe grapefruit, plum. A bit sweet. Nice enough, but meaningless. (3/09)

Vavasour 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Very solid with some quartz at the interior. Ripe, structured, and intense. Good. (3/09)

Kim Crawford 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Sweet mandarin orange, mango, plum. Extremely tropical. I don’t care for this style any more than the capsicum-infused alternative. (3/09)

Nobilo “Icon” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Sophisticated and suave. Crystallized minerality, leafy. Not green. Good weight. Finishes a little flat, though. Just OK. (3/09)

Matua Valley 2008 Sauvignon Blanc “Paretai” (Marlborough) – Green pea and black pepper do battle with ripe tropical fruit. There’s greenness, as well. The finish is weirdly sour, but until that point the wine’s good enough. (3/09)

Saint Clair 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Pioneer Block 1 “Foundation” (Marlborough) – Vibrant, pure, and intense. Green mango, grapefruit, light orange. A slight bit of stick on the finish, but otherwise classic and very good. The class of the 2008s, for sure. (3/09)

Whitehaven 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Pea soup with artificial sweetener; here are all the old flaws, presented in a modernistic, sludgy package. And in what universe does this deserve a $23 suggested retail price? (3/09)

Woollaston 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Nelson) – Red fruit, black-hearted minerals. Incredible intensity. Very lightly sweet-seeming. Long. Huge. Impressive. One might even say tumescent. (3/09)

Dashwood 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Thin, papery, and innocuous. (3/09)

Wither Hills 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Greener than it has been in other vintages. Grass, leaves, and coal dust on the finish. Eh. (3/09)

Isabel 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Slate, cedar, and a fine particulate texture with laser-like intensity. Extremely impressive. (3/09)

Staete Landt 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Very mineral-dominated. grassy, with green apple skins. Long. Good. (3/09)

Villa Maria “Cellar Selection” 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Intense, long, and ripe, with purity and balance. Hints of black fruit. The wine glows. (3/09)

New Zealand’s enthusiastic bid for market dominance with sauvignon blanc is often remarked upon, but I think this has it backwards; it is sauvignon blanc that dominates New Zealand, and not in an entirely good way, either. Plantings have grown from just over 2000 hectares in the year 2000 to just under 12,000 in 2008, and exports have grown along similar lines: from 20 million liters in 2004 to almost 70 million liters in 2008.

It might be more useful to view those numbers in context. Over the 2004-2008 period, sauvignon blanc plantings roughly doubled (6 to 12 thousand hectares), while total plantings of all grapes only increased 66%. That’s a country losing its identity to a grape. Yes, there’s pinot noir to consider, but most of that discussion takes place in another price category, and thus I will save it for a later chapter.

But if New Zealand as a whole has to worry about this, Marlborough in particular has already lost its battle. A staggering 91% of all New Zealand sauvignon blanc comes from this one region. I think that, for many consumers, New Zealand = Marlborough = sauvignon blanc…which has a certain marketing appeal for producers who fit all three categories, but some ominous inertia for anyone looking to sell something else, especially from Marlborough.

This is not to say that Marlborough hasn’t shown an ability to produce appealing wines from this grape, though I think the picture is less clear than it was a decade ago. There are, in general, three styles that flow from the region. The first is the classic, green-dominated, somewhat abrasive style that made the region’s name, which at its best has an exciting tactility, and at its worst (underripe fruit overwhelmed with pyrazines) tastes exclusively of bell peppers and tinned vegetables. The second is the overcompensation for the first style: ripe, tropical fruit with residual sugar and an unwelcome loss of acidity. Of these two dominant styles, the first is better at getting attention, but the second is better at keeping it.

The third style is still a definite minority, and not where the big money is to be made, but where a slim hope for defining Marlborough sauvignon as something other than a commodity lies. Some producers are playing with techniques – native yeast ferments, oak regimes, lees stirring, sémillon blends – with very interesting results. Others are exploring sub-regional bottlings, though only a few are drilling down to the single-vineyard level as yet. Some are chasing minerality, which (on the evidence) is at least achievable from some sites. But in all cases, the goal is to make a sauvignon blanc of individual quality and character, in contrast to the practitioners of the two dominant styles, who are pursuing a predefined market in predetermined ways.

While the unfortunate dalliance with making sub-$10 sauvignon blanc seems to be over by international economic default (only one wine – the Dashwood – comes in below that price, and it’s one of the two worst wines of the tasting; I just don’t think it’s possible to make worthwhile Marlborough sauvignon blanc at that price point, and if it was, Villa Maria and Brancott would already be doing it), the problem is now at the other end.

The majority of these wines are over $15, though few of them perform at that level. Several are at or over $20, and while there are some successes, they aren’t as universal as they should be. Qualitatively, there’s a lot of middle-of-the-road wine here. I think an important caveat to that is that this lineup is decidedly shifted towards the mass-market, lower-end versions of Marlborough sauvignon blanc, and a more comprehensive survey would include many wines that exhibit the very character and class that I’m labeling the “third style” a few paragraphs upstream. Most of the wines are more-or-less drinkable, no more, and no less. They’re commodities. There’s nothing wrong with that – commodity wines are the bulk of the wine industry – but it’s a low foundation on which to build an identity as a wine-producing region. If Marlborough is to grow, it will need to expand that identity beyond large-production sauvignon blanc.

Part of this, too, may be the limitations of sauvignon blanc as a grape. I wouldn’t argue, as some would, that it’s not capable of greatness, but rather that the evidence suggests that such greatness is limited to very few sites and even fewer producers. Sauvignon blanc has a lot more inherent character than chardonnay, which makes it a better choice for commodity wines, but as a result requires a greater effort to elevate it above its station.

But let’s get back to quality. Looking at this list, a number of abject failures stand out, and more than a few of them are among the cheapest wines in the tasting: Matua Valley, Monkey Bay, Nobilo “Regional Collection”, Babich, Allan Scott, Nautilus, Drylands, Kennedy Point, Spy Valley, Dashwood, and Whitehaven. That last one earns special mention for carrying a $23 suggested price and still being awful. But what strikes me most about this list is the popularity of the wines on it; these are the labels one sees in every store and on every wine list. That’s unfortunate.

The successes? I’d put those in two categories. First, the mass-market and under$20 successes: Oyster Bay, Saint Clair “Vicar’s Choice”, Goldwater, Villa Maria “Private Bin”, Vavasour, Staete Landt, and Brancott “Reserve” (the latter is a surprise, since it has underperformed for quite a few vintages previous to this one).

Then there are the “stars” of the tasting. From the top down: Villa Maria “Cellar Selection”, Isabel, Saint Clair Pioneer Block 1, and Woollaston. But, one may wonder, why is “stars” in scare quotes? Because while I’d happily buy and drink any of these wines, none is paradigm-defining or truly world-class. The days of excited whispers about Marlborough sauvignon blanc – “hey, have you tasted Cloudy Bay? – are long gone. What’s going to replace them? We’re still in the process of finding out.

Dark times for pinot?

[vines at felton road]Here’s part two of a New Zealand Winegrowers trade tasting; the first part covered sauvignon blanc, this will deal with pinot noir, the third installment will run down a few rieslings, and everything else will appear in the fourth installment. Notes are of the hit-and-run variety due to the format, so please read them in that context.

Matua Valley 2008 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Green leaves (perhaps beet greens) with a powdery underbelly. Hardly undrinkable, but tastes more like an experiment than a pinot noir. (3/09)

Saint Clair “Vicar’s Choice” 2008 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Dry red fruit. Underripe. (3/09)

Saint Clair 2008 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Clean red berries and Juicy Fruit™ gum. Candy’s rarely a positive descriptor for pinot noir. (3/09)

Palliser Estate “Pencarrow” 2007 Pinot Noir (Martinborough) – Tart. Rhubarb and cranberry. Smoke and a little minerality, with hints of depth on the finish. Very crisp. Not entirely balanced. (3/09)

Palliser Estate 2007 Pinot Noir (Martinborough) – Beet, plum, and weedy tannin. This wine throbs at a baritone pitch, never really adding anything other tones of interest. Disappointing. (3/09)

Dashwood 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Black cherry, sour dill, and severe char. Vile. (3/09)

Stoneleigh 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Light black fruit with clarifying acidity. Juicy and pleasant. (3/09)

Babich 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Sweetish candy notes. Black plum, orange rind, golden beet, and a hint of anise. This doesn’t entirely escape a certain synthetic character, either. Iffy. (3/09)

Oyster Bay 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Flat. Seashell and dirty asphalt. Yuck. (3/09)

Nobilo “Icon” 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Pretty fruit; a blend of black, red, and purple. Soft and clean. There’s nothing here but fruit, and while it’s good in that style, it’s a little more like juice than wine. (3/09)

Nautilus “Opawa” 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Golden beet and concentrated weed…both the invasive plant and the kind you smoke…with a short, bitter finish. Thoroughly underripe. (3/09)

Matua Valley 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Prune, black cherry, and burnt coffee. Short, and that’s probably for the best. (3/09)

Vavasour 2007 Pinot Noir Awatere Valley (Marlborough) – Sharp and short, but what’s here is tasty, fun, and crisp. Red berries, mostly. (3/09)

Allan Scott 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Green grass and high tides forever. Actually, maybe just the green grass. And dill. Dull. Dull dill. (3/09)

Babich “Winemakers’ Reserve” 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Pure red fruit, apple, clementine. Crisp, with a sandy texture. Good basic pinot. (3/09)

Nautilus 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Sugary red and black plums, finishes like some bizarre sort of candy. (3/09)

Saint Clair 2007 Pinot Noir Pioneer Block 4 “Sawcut” (Marlborough) – Cran-grape juice. Light, sour, and underripe. (3/09)

Staete Landt 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Reserved, dry, and difficult, with chalky minerality. Very long, though. A little bizarre, perhaps, but it might be worth holding for a while, to see what happens. (3/09)

Spy Valley 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Plummy. Short, simple fruit. Clean. (3/09)

Wild Earth “Blind Trail” 2007 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Beet, blood orange, and luminescent red fruit with hints of herb. Fun, with good quality for its price. (3/09)

Amisfield 2007 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Smoked dill, heavily-filtered dark fruit, and some heat. Long, but to little purpose. An absent wine, and just no good. (3/09)

Woollaston 2006 Pinot Noir (Nelson) – Black fruit with a candied edge, coal at the core, and hints of additional minerality. Coarse and short, but intense while it lasts. Not all that much fun to drink. (3/09)

Montana “Brancott” 2006 Pinot Noir “Reserve” (Marlborough) – Butter soup. Awful. (3/09)

Whitehaven 2006 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Stale nuts. Flat. Horrid. (3/09)

Hans 2006 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Beet, asparagus, and bitterness. Yuck. (3/09)

Wild Earth 2006 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Mixed berries and dark soil studded with morels. Deep, with the first stirrings of complexity. Medium-length finish. Very good. (3/09)

Isabel 2005 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Green berries. Tart and weedy, with watermelon Jolly Rancher on the finish. Short. A disappointment. (3/09)

Wither Hills 2005 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Black fruit tarted up like candy lozenges. (3/09)

Palliser Estate 2007 Pinot Noir (Martinborough) – Green beets (rather than beet greens) and pinkish fruit, with a powdered cotton candy texture. (3/09)

Gladstone 2007 Pinot Noir (Wairarapa) – Biting, skin-bitter, and high-toned. Lavender aromas. Weirdly interesting, though I think it would be difficult to identify as pinot noir. (3/09)

Waimea “Spinyback” 2007 Pinot Noir (Nelson) – Dirty (in a good way), but the palate is soapy and the finish pure Styrofoam. (3/09)

Te Mania 2007 Pinot Noir “Reserve” (Nelson) – Quite volatile and high-toned, with pinkish-purple fruit, plus a great deal of bite and chew. Spicy. Perhaps a touch woody, but it should integrate if so. (3/09)

Montana “Brancott” 2007 “T” Pinot Noir “Terraces” (Marlborough) – Red cherry, strawberry, raspberry. Simple fruit, but there’s not much else. Very light, with good balance. (3/09)

Huia 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Sour dill and other herbs with a chalky finish. Awkward. (3/09)

Muddy Water 2007 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Black cherry and black truffle with a heart of darkness. Elegant and pure. Lovely. (3/09)

WJ Coles Successors “The Crater Rim” 2007 Pinot Noir Blacks Lot 7 (Waipara) – Promising at first, but then…? Plummy fruit without a finish of any kind. Where’s the rest of the wine? (3/09)

Valli 2007 Pinot Noir Waitaki (Central Otago) – Intense blueberry. Very juicy. Pulses at the core. Piercing at first, but it’s all upfront; the wine’s finish goes nowhere, leaving only a lingering hint of tannin. (3/09)

Mud House “Swan” 2007 Pinot Noir Bendigo (Central Otago) – Smoky/musty raspberry, beet, and sugarplum. OK, but there’s a candied element that detracts. (3/09)

Carrick 2007 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Toast and char. Extremely ungenerous. Hard throughout. Whatever killed this wine – and it’s most certainly, if prematurely, dead – must include the barrels. (3/09)

Pinot noir is New Zealand’s second most planted variety. That’s sort of staggering to think about; more than any of the Bordeaux grapes, more than syrah, more than pinot gris, and even more than chardonnay. If sauvignon blanc is the grape on which New Zealand’s commercial fortunes rest, pinot noir is the grape in which its qualitative reputation is almost solely invested. (At least for now, that is; syrah has shown great promise, though finding a market for it will be a different issue.)

But while a good deal of international hype has been whipped up over the quality and potential quality of the country’s pinots, there are four factors that hold it back: ripeness, price, quantity, and identity.

New Zealand’s top pinot noir producers have concluded that pushed-ripeness (“overripe,” if one prefers a value judgment) pinot noir is, at best, a controversial product. For many, the quest is not for more, but rather for less, and some even bottle their reserve bottlings only in what might, by the rules of Burgundy and other regions, be considered the “lesser” (that is, cooler and less ripe) years. Of course, good wines are produced at many different conceptions of ripeness. Yet most winemakers acknowledge that it is all too easy for them to make monster pinot noir, and many feel that it is not in their interest to do so. (On this point I agree with them, but that’s obviously based on my personal preferences.)

Price is a persistent issue with pinot noir from anywhere; the tariff for entry into the realm of quality pinot noir is usually fairly high, and attempts to find cheaper alternatives are rarely met with success. This is no less true in New Zealand, and the above notes bear this out; a little less than half the wines are under $20, and the vast majority of those range from nearly-undrinkable to, at best, drinkable simplicity. Among the country’s best pinot noirs (not, in general, represented in these notes), prices ranging from around $40 to the higher double-digit realms are the norm; the triple-digit super-cuvées with which a few overreaching New Zealand producers have experimented haven’t found traction here, as yet.

Of course, wherever there’s good pinot noir, there’s not much of it. The very best wines are, like the best pinots from pretty much everywhere else, small-production entities. (Site-specific bottlings aren’t yet a major factor; New Zealanders’ caution in this area is warranted and admirable, since many vineyards are far too young to have clearly separable terroir signatures, and clonal identities are, in many wines, far more dominant at the moment.) The most cultish bottlings are snapped up by locals via long-closed mailing lists, and the rest must service not only the homeland, but also many other markets in which New Zealand has had a longer presence than it has had in the States. So to speak of high-quality, limited production pinot noir is one thing, but to actually acquire a selection is another. The promotion challenges are considerable; if there are only a dozen cases available for the entire United States, and some of that must be opened for otherwise-unfamiliar retailers, sommeliers, and press, there’s not going to be much wine to sell. And thus, there’s not much chance of marketing traction for the wine, the brand, or the grape. Larger-production wines do better at this, but as the above notes indicate, many of those wines aren’t very good, which is a brand-building danger of its own.

All of these factors contribute to the difficult question of New Zealand pinot noir’s identity in the worldwide marketplace. The wines that are available everywhere are “cheap for pinot”, but in reality aren’t all that cheap…and, mostly, aren’t all that good either. Many better wines are only anecdotally available, and most certainly aren’t cheap. The existence of the former damages the case for the latter, but the general unavailability of the latter makes it impossible to counter this effect.

And that’s not even the biggest problem. Putting aside “commoditized” pinot noir for a moment, quality-oriented wines from this grape must compete in a world marketplace that is rather laden with options from elsewhere, priced pretty much the same. Lovers of a riper, more full-throttled “Californian” style will find wines from New Zealand that fit their palate, but in tiny quantities and equivalent prices, so what – other than pure curiosity – is their impetus to explore the category? Lovers of a more restrained, “Burgundian” style will find wines made with that philosophy in mind, whether or not the wines actually taste Burgundian (mostly, they don’t; if there’s any region with which the wines have a vague kinship, it’s the Willamette Valley), but this is an audience that’s very, very resistant to New World pinot noir…and again, the prices for wines of equivalent quality are not particularly divergent. So again, what’s the motivation to shift funds from one to the other?

Given that most (though certainly not all) New Zealand producers’ best pinot noirs are deliberate attempts to scale back New World-style ripeness, it’s crucial that these wines be placed in front of critics, traders, and consumers who dislike the more powerful style. Only then will any market presence be enhanced. The wines will always be a difficult sell, but here is where their low quantities become a virtue; the audience doesn’t have to be huge to sell through the wines.

And further progress must be made on the “bargain pinot” front. There is evidence that pinot noir of quality, if not necessarily much complexity, can be made in New Zealand. Many of the best producers bottle a forward, fresh, “drink now” bottling specifically targeting this market; these wine, rather than wretched mass-market cheapies, must come to represent New Zealand pinot noir in the popular mindset, or consumers will always be wary of “trading up” to the pricier wines. Nothing from this tasting better exemplifies the necessary qualities than the Wild Earth “Blind Trail” from the Central Otago, which often retails for under $20. No, it won’t make anyone forget Chambolle-Musigny, or for that matter Domaine Drouhin Oregon, but then again it’s not supposed to.

Unfortunately, the rather high percentage of wines in this tasting that come from Marlborough does not represent the best path towards this goal. There aren’t many regions in the world where pinot noir and sauvignon blanc grow to high quality side-by-side, and based on the evidence thus far Marlborough isn’t about to add itself to that list. To be sure, there are quality pinots made in the region (and a tiny number of real stars), but there are very few versus the total number produced. Overall, 45% of New Zealand’s pinot noir comes from its most industrial region, followed by 28% from the hype-heavy Central Otago (rife with young vines and untested potential, despite the hype), just 11% from its (so far) best region – the Wairarapa, including Martinborough – and a relative trickle from Nelson, the Waipara, and elsewhere. This is not a recipe for progress.

Within the confines of this tasting, it would be a rather lengthy process to list the failures, for they are numerous. Of special note, however, have to be those wines that grossly under-perform at their price points; those include Spy Valley, Amisfield (a perennial underachiever), Whitehaven, Palliser Estate, Huia, Isabel, and – most shockingly for me, since I’ve liked the wine in the past – Carrick. There are some surprising names on that list.

The successes? At the lower end – which is relative for this grape – Palliser Estate “Pencarrow”, Stoneleigh, Nobilo “Icon”, Vavasour, and the Babich “Winemakers’ Reserve” perform well, though all are surpassed by the quality/price ratio of the Wild Earth “Blind Trail”. At the higher end, Wild Earth and Muddy Water are the only real standouts.

Riesling star

[riesling at kahurangi estate]Here’s part three of a New Zealand Winegrowers trade tasting; the first part covered sauvignon blanc, the second with pinot noir, and everything else will appear in the fourth installment. Notes are of the hit-and-run variety due to the format, so please read them in that context.

Saint Clair “Vicar’s Choice” 2008 Riesling (Marlborough) – Varietally true, but that’s about all to be said about it. Light, with an equally light sense of sweetness. Drinkable but dull. (3/09)

Babich 2007 “Dry” Riesling (Marlborough) – Loaded with mercaptans. Sharp as a razor, but fruitless. Flat. Boring. (3/09)

Spy Valley 2007 Riesling (Marlborough) – Slight sweetness, apple, gritty steel, and a few drips of petrol. Long. Not bad, albeit simple. (3/09)

Palliser Estate 2007 Riesling (Martinborough) – Intense lime, lemon, and limestone, but the wine is balanced rather than enormous or top-heavy. In fact, the balance is rather impressive. A wine of substance. The quibble is the a lack of complexity, though it’s young and there’s plenty of time. (3/09)

Dry River 2007 Riesling Craighall “Amaranth” (Martinborough) – Vivid. Crushed glass and rocks, both liquefied. Excellent acid/sugar balance. Incredibly pure. Very, very, very long. Incredible, and clearly the best wine of the entire tasting. (3/09)

Waimea “Spinyback” 2007 Riesling (Nelson) – Wet and fun. Slate. Fruit-forward, with slight tropicality. A bit simple, but good, with some potential upside as the wine ages. (3/09)

Neudorf 2007 Riesling Brightwater (Nelson) – Slightly reduced but still accessible. Mineral-dominated (gravel and sand). Dried Granny Smith apple. High-quality. (3/09)

Allan Scott 2007 Riesling (Marlborough) – Grassy. Light green plum. Synthetic finish. Very simple. (3/09)

Villa Maria “Cellar Selection” 2007 Riesling (Marlborough) – Ultra-clean and “perfect,” but it lacks the additional intensity and/or complexity it would need to achieve greatness. Long, dry, and mineral-overwhelmed (mostly because there’s not much else), with little future indicated. Still, a good enough wine for early drinking. (3/09)

Mud House 2007 Riesling (Waipara) – A hollow balloon of dusty minerality, lime rind, and grapefruit. Short. (3/09)

Mount Grey 2007 Riesling (Waipara) – Rich, silky, and tropical. Not enough acidity. Some plastic weirdness, as well. (3/09)

Amisfield 2007 “Dry” Riesling (Central Otago) – A smoked crystal core with a hint of cherry. Dark, brooding, and earthy. Quite enticing. (3/09)

Felton Road 2007 Riesling (Central Otago) – Lots of sugar, front-loaded and obvious, but with the requisite acidity to match it. An explosion of apples follows. Big and long. Wow. (3/09)

Forget sauvignon blanc. The future of New Zealand white winedom might be riesling.

Of course, it will take a long while before we’ll know whether or not this is true. For one thing, the vines tend to be very, very young (the oldest in New Zealand are in the hands of an unfortunately commercial winery). For another, they’re not always planted on the best sites (that is to say, few know where the actual “best sites” are, as yet). Additionally, the market for riesling is a fickle and frequently absent one, even in the best of cases. But New Zealand riesling plantings and exports continue to rise on a slow-but-steady incline, according to the data. So while there’s not explosive demand or supply, there’s a growing interest. Slow, steady growth suits this slow, steady grape.

Stylistically, most New Zealand riesling of note is off-dry. Dry versions of quality are rare. Fully sweet and/or botrytized versions tend to be better, but are ubiquitous enough that there’s a lot of tedium and indifference, much of it overpriced, some of it well-priced to no good effect. Outright sweet riesling is harder than people think.

Regionally, there’s no one source of excitement. Martinborough, Marlborough, Nelson, Waipara/Canterbury, Central Otago…all have promising (and less so) wines to show to the world. Potential diversity is thus suggested, but it will take years to work out the shape of that diversity.

In this tasting, it’s clear that the median point for riesling is higher than it is for any other grape on offer (and based on my historical tastings, this is generally true). I don’t believe this indicates something fundamental about inherent varietal quality, but rather a disinterest in mucking about with this particular grape as a function of its lack of popularity. Were these sauvignon blancs, they’d be focus-grouped to death, with the concomitant cellar machinations following. But riesling? Many wineries will ask: what’s the point? The result is, overall, better wine, with fewer lows. And the highs? Slightly higher as a percentage of the total, I’d say, though that’s an unscientific assessment.

Obviously, the Dry River and the Felton Road are the stars of this tasting, though the Amisfield, Neudorf, and Palliser Estate are all high-quality wines. The Dry River needs to be good at its price, which is nearly twice that of any other wine. Is it worth it? Yeah, probably.

Finally, a note: in 2002, Villa Maria told me that they were exerting a special focus on what they referred to as “Alsatian varieties.” Villa Maria is a huge, sometimes industrial, producer, but as they’re family owned, they don’t have to engage in the ridiculous market-whoring contortions that many publicly-traded wineries suffer. As such, I think their “Alsatian” focus represents an honest belief that there’s real potential for that particular palette of grapes in New Zealand. Villa Maria knows their market and their country’s overall potential as well as anyone, so theirs is an opinion I take seriously.

Kiwi cornucopia

[mid-veraison grapes]Here’s the final installment of a New Zealand Winegrowers trade tasting; the first part dealt with sauvignon blanc, the second with pinot noir, and the third with riesling. Everything else is here. Notes are of the hit-and-run variety due to the format, so please read them in that context.

Kim Crawford 2008 “Unoaked” Chardonnay (Gisborne/Hawke’s Bay) – Sweet tropical candy. Dried fruit. Rainier cherry? Eh. (3/09)

Babich 2008 “Unoaked” Chardonnay (Marlborough) – Bitter but clean. Rinds and gravel. Seems off-dry. OK. (3/09)

Villa Maria “Private Bin” 2008 Chardonnay (Marlborough) – Ripe orange and fig with a hint of butter. Big, clean, and nice. This is what cheap chardonnay should taste like. (3/09)

Oyster Bay 2008 Chardonnay (Marlborough) – Spice and milk. Is there fruit? It’s hard to say. Worked to death, and no fun. (3/09)

Chardonnay is being abandoned as a commodity grape in New Zealand. That’s not a reflection of plantings – it’s quite widely-grown, though it pales in comparison to sauvignon blanc, and isn’t even quite as popular as pinot noir – but a reflection of its marketing, which is mostly nonexistent in the States. (In New Zealand itself, things are a little different.) And – I can’t believe I’m about to say this – it’s a shame.

The unoaked style has fresh potential on the ground in its country of origin, but as an export wine isn’t of much use; it’s probably not worth the tariff to get these friendly, simple wines to other shores. However, the fruit intensity of the better New Zealand chardonnays (most of which are oaked to some degree) is so vivid and pure that it would be a shame to abandon the grape. None of which are represented here, in my opinion, and it’s true that the world hardly needs more chardonnay, but I think there’s real potential that, while not going untapped, is perhaps going unrealized by worldwide consumers.

One caveat on the preceding notes: these chardonnays were tasted immediately after the sauvignon blancs, and (in my opinion) suffered in contrast with the acidity and green intensity of that grape.

Hans 2007 Viognier (Marlborough) – Lanolin and pretty flowers. Oil, peanut, some spice. Oak? I’m not sure. Fantastic flavors, though they’re sticky and thick. Lurid, as many viogniers are. Not bad? Particular, for sure. (3/09)

I keep tasting interesting viogniers from New Zealand, and then returning to find they’ve fallen on harder times. It’s a cranky grape, for sure, with as many detractors as fans. But if there’s potential, and someone can figure out how to retain some acid in the wine, there’s probably a market.

Nobilo “Regional Collection” 2008 Pinot Grigio (East Coast) – Big yellow/white/green fruit with a flat finish. Simple and boring. (3/09)

Nautilus 2008 Pinot Gris (Marlborough) – Very sweet and spicy. Wobbly Wine as Pop Rocks. (3/09)

Te Mara 2008 Pinot Gris (Central Otago) – Sticky pear, spice, and minerality. Good intensity. Vivid. Neon-electric. I’d call this a CGI pinot gris, and in a good way, but it’s not for everyone. (3/09)

Spy Valley 2007 Pinot Gris (Marlborough) – Grass, pear skin. Balanced but insignificant. (3/09)

Hans 2007 Pinot Gris (Marlborough) – Lotion, dried pear. A lingering impression of something being fried, though it’s not clear what. Weird and not very good. (3/09)

There has been an explosion of pinot gris in New Zealand. Why? Ask winemakers. When they’re being honest, they’ll tell you that it’s a mystery to them, as well. But they’ll be in the process of making one while they tell you that. Whether there’s an insatiable demand for the grape, or just a demand “created” by the fact that there’s rather a lot to sell, the fact is that New Zealand is awash in the stuff.

Fruit-forward, a little sweet, and flaw-free. That’s the recipe for a successful commercial white wine, and so much pinot gris from New Zealand is made this way that its cash-cow role is rather clear to see. But there’s a problem. It’s not that so few rise to any real significance, it’s that even among the bottlings that don’t try, few of them are of much interest at all. In fact, some winemakers will – with an embarrassed tone – tell you exactly that, if you ask. And yet, they’re producing the wine in ever-increasing quantities. By the numbers, less than 200 hectares in 2000 have become over 1300 hectares in 2008, and exports have skyrocketed from 200,000 liters in 2004 to almost 1,300,000 liters in 2008. Who’s buying this stuff? No one I know. Yet there must be a market somewhere. Asia? The UK? Australia?

Pinot gris can be interesting in two ways: rich, mineralistic, and spicy in the mode of Alsace (and the only successful wine of this tasting, the Te Mara, is in that style), or mineral-driven but clean and clear, in the mode of regions Germanic and northeastern Italy. Otherwise, it’s a boring grape that makes offensively inoffensive wine.

Much more is going to have to be done with the grape to convince me that it’s worthwhile for so much of it to be produced in New Zealand. For now, it’s their California chardonnay. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

Spy Valley 2005 Gewürztraminer (Marlborough) – Mercaptans. Old cashews and tin. Useless. (3/09)

While I’ve often said that gewürztraminer is a grape with which New Zealand could make a big international splash, had they only the will, the fact is that there’s no worldwide clamor for alternative gewürztraminer sources. (In fact, New Zealand’s exports of gewürztraminer fell last year.) Certainly this wine will do nothing to convince anyone. Look to Gisborne and Martinborough for much, much, much better examples, the best of which hold their heads high in the company of Alsace, the unquestioned best region for the grape.

Monkey Bay 2007 Rosé (East Coast) – Disgusting synthetic aromas and flavors. Blech. (3/09)

No comment.

Oyster Bay 2007 Merlot (Hawke’s Bay) – Watermelon Jolly Rancher. In a merlot? No thanks. (3/09)

Kennedy Point 2005 Merlot (Waikehe Island) – Blueberry soup with biting tannin. Ick. (3/09)

Villa Maria “Private Bin” 2007 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon (Hawke’s Bay) – Herbed blueberry and blackberry. Simple, clean, and good according to the nose. But the palate? Baked. And the finish is horrid. (3/09)

Trinity Hill 2006 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon Gimblett Gravels “The Gimblett” (Hawke’s Bay) – Chunky peanut butter, which melds with a gravelly texture. Incredibly rough. Uninteresting despite the terroir signature. (3/09)

Hans 2001 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon “Spirit of Marlborough” (Marlborough) – Ripe fruit (mostly black), fresh tobacco, smoke, and black dirt. A bit short and unsubstantial, but OK. (3/09)

There are quality wines made from the Bordeaux varieties in New Zealand. Obviously, none are represented above (and the prices being asked for these wines are ludicrous in relation to their quality), but they absolutely do exist. And not just from Hawke’s Bay, though that’s where current attention is focused. Waiheke Island has its stars, certainly, but the rest of the (largely unknown in the U.S.) Auckland-surrounding and Northland appellations have potential. Elsewhere, it’s very much a producer-by-producer thing.

Kennedy Point 2007 Syrah (Waiheke Island) – Cassis, blueberry, and cranberry with a long, sugary finish. No good. (3/09)

Trinity Hill 2007 Syrah Gimblett Gravels (Hawke’s Bay) – Blueberry, bark, smoke, and dirt. Drinkable. (3/09)

The Australia-New Zealand rivalry in so many things rarely intrudes on matters vinous. In fact, for a long while the industries complemented each other’s markets: New Zealand imported a lot of hefty Australian reds, while Australia provided a ready market for New Zealand’s crisp, clean whites. Each seemed to be able to fill a perceived hole in the other’s stylistic range. Often, the only time Australia would come up in discussions with New Zealand winemakers would be as contrast to a fairly widespread belief that, given New Zealand’s climates, looking to Australia for viticultural advice would be a mistake. Yes, New Zealand is very clearly a New World producer, and this is reflected in their wines, but in terms of philosophy it was decided that Europe would be the model.

In making this choice, New Zealand chose a difficult path for itself, because the slow advance of vine age, the painstaking revelation of terroir, and the endless search for complexity, balance, and soul necessary to model an industry after Europe (for whether or not one agrees with these characterizations, those are the beliefs being pursued) are not aligned with the most commercially successful New World winemaking practices. New Zealand’s successes have, in fact, come largely along those latter lines: fruit-forward, varietally-designated wines that make an immediate impression. Yet it’s clear, especially from the relentless focus on pinot noir – that most difficult of grapes – that the aspiration to do otherwise remains. And each year, a few more New Zealand wines enter into a conversation in which they can hold their own with their inspirations. Not equality, yet, but quality.

In that process, a minor revelation has snuck up on New Zealand’s winemakers: they can produce high-quality syrah. And that while, at its best, it doesn’t taste like European syrah, it tastes a lot less like Australian shiraz. Power, intensity, concentration…these are not its calling cards. But earth? Underbrush? Sensitivity to terroir? They’re coming along.

New Zealanders can barely contain their glee. No, they’re never going to “beat” the commercial dominance of Aussie shiraz – they could never produce that sort of quantity, even if they uprooted all the sheep and replaced them with syrah vines – but they could, perhaps, drive a deep wedge into a notion that the source for quality New World syrah is their much larger neighbor to the northwest. And they can do it by directly appealing to those who find many Australian shirazes (and some of their Californian and South African counterparts) too brawny. As anyone familiar with the Aussie/Kiwi rivalry can imagine, there’s not much resistance to this idea.

Supposition? Speculation? Not really. Consider: the grape is, almost universally, called syrah – not shiraz – on New Zealand bottles. That’s no accident.

As for the wines in this tasting? They obviously won’t convince anyone of anything.