Wine today is suffocated by an industrial and disproportionate number of writers, critics, reviewers and judges. There are so many voices vying for airtime, filling up virtual white pages with their comments, feelings and dissertations. There are homers and there are curmudgeons. When in balance, both keep the ship afloat, but more often than not the questions begs. Which ones are causing the wreck? The answer is both. The problem is not the intent but rather the execution.
You may have noticed that when I write about wine, which is pretty much all of the time, I use a whole lot of words. A mess of vocabulary. An inordinate amount of adjectives. A boundless number of references to music, song and pop culture. It’s how I roll. And it has got me thinking, again.
Tis’ about that time of year. A period for reflection and review, not on what was so great in the previous vintage but about the things that will be critical going forward in this new one. Please excuse the interlude while I hang suspended within the interval of hermeneutic, contemplation and debate. Reading books on anthropology, art world shenanigans and a post-holocaust personal journey are seeping into my thoughts like Sémillon into Sauvignon Blanc and the varietal blend is coming up complicated.
Related – Wine: It’s a matter of tasting notes
Old guard tasting notes are losing their relevance and not because they are wrong or inaccurate. They just don’t speak to wine in the 21st century. They don’t tell a story and they surely don’t have any fun. So what? Imagine taking a video of yourself working on your computer, browsing the internet, reading and interacting on social media. What would you see? A world of links and associations. A world where thoughts and comments bounce around like children in a jumpy castle. This is the realm of the new tasting note. This is what wine can do for you in the 21st century. It can lead you forward and take you back. Most of all it can really tie your life together.
Related – Three-chord wines, hold the rants
Then the whining. The constant shrill voice of conceit mixed with complaint. The words minced to poison with a hunger to attack. Paragraphs penned to warn of apocalypse and to relegate decent writers to the scrap heap and back to the depressing nine to five. Writers reacting only to what others do without creating anything of their own. Comedians of the wine world lashing out, ranting, shouting “got ’em, need ’em, hate ’em.”
These attitudes and still the truth is not to be ignored. Reading a wine through a tasting note is like kissing a woman through a veil. “Translation is a kind of transubstantiation,” where one wine becomes another and another. You can choose your philosophy of critiquing just as you choose how to live. The freedom to personalize or substantiate thoughts on structure sacrifices the detail to meaning and meaning to preciseness. The winemaker is the writer or poet, moving from vines to vinous language. The critic moves in the opposite direction, or should, by attempting to read between the lines, to identify what can’t be seen, to interpret the mysterious implications of smell, taste and texture.
The lede firmly and flatly backs the headline, states, if asks, “is writing making a mess of wine?” Yes, that is a double entendre, a loaded gun of meaning and hypothesis, a million dollar question. While we want to know who’ll stop the rain, we also desperately need to understand the meaning of wine. So we put it down in words. We explain how wonderful life is with wine in the world. We also break it down, grape by grape, to a point where it often lies broken, disassembled, deconstructed, left for naked. What is it for? Are wine writers leaving behind a city of ruins?
Have they decided and determined that the winemaker’s works can be used to make a point? A point that belongs to the critic? Has the wine writer taken away the artist’s right to be, has the intent been obscured, or worse, the opposite and turned it into a curator’s right?
There are wines that claim you and wines that warn you away. Maybe the writers are just looking for wine that would teach them everything, like searching for one language, just as some would look for one woman’s face. The combined fugitive pieces of wine and its critics pose “questions without answers.” They must be asked very slowly.
To the beleaguered point five wines are here venerated and disfigured, assessed and cut to size. They are sniffed and sipped, thought of in song and regurgitated on the page. Do they lift or bury their maker’s plan? You be the judge.
Susana Balbo Signature Barrel Fermented Torrontés 2014, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina (384339, $17.95, WineAlign)
Here, from Dominio del Plata, an experiment with clear merit. The attributes are so sizeable, with weight depth and no compromise. The dramatic effect works to ignore the “clouds of mystery pourin’ confusion on the ground.” The floral aromatic integrity of Torrontés is upheld within the leaden shackles of the wood, as is the savour. This is a honeyed white, suckling and mellifluous, like fully extracted ripe Sémillon, from and with the benefit of a warm vintage. Puts the fun back into varietal revival by way of a giant leap up from the thin, medicinal water clogging the arteries of South American white wines so often put to market. Here is a Torrontés to stop the rain. Tasted January 2015 @ @
Sterling Vineyards Pinot Noir 2012, Napa Valley, California (424179, $19.95, WineAlign)
There are so many reasons not to find a thrill in this regional blend of Pinot Noir fruit but none of them stick. Sweetness, simple syrup silky fruit, brown sugar, every red and purple berry in all varieties of fields (plus ripe plums) and warm to temperate alcohol (14.5 per cent declared) all combine for full California sunshine effect. All this and I just can’t turn away. With all the excess fruit, texture and multiplicity in good times, how can I? I ask this Pinot, “how come you, how come you dance so good?” The answer lies in the feel and the ability to turn a Noir trick or two. Not to mention a rolling of barrels and Napa Valley stones through its very core. Well done. Tasted January 2015 @ @
Steve Byfield’s crimson blend of Cabernet Franc (42 per cent), Merlot (33), Cabernet Sauvignon (20) and Syrah (5) is at once so very Niagara while acting out anomalously in the 2011 vintage. Ripe, extracted fruit appears warm-vintage drawn, with its coated layers of primer, brushstroke and plummy stone fruit. The warmth is tempered by savour, oranges, figs and psalms. Its ability to find cadence and cascade keeps it “cool in the shade.” The varietal combining is delineated in balance, “sliding mystify, on the wine of the tide.” This effort, with its new name, could become one of the king’s amongst Ontario blends. Tasted January 2015 @
Here, the intensity of multi-varietal wine defined. From next to the Danube, out of the Ulm Vineyard, on a very steep southern slope on the eastern part of the Nussberg. The composition is nine-fold; Weissburgunder, Neuburger, Welschriesling, Grüner Veltliner, Sylvaner, Zierfandler, Rotgipfler, Traminer and Riesling. The aridity (1.3 g/L RS) is visionary. Beneath the vineyard there is coral from the tertiary period and in this wine you can hear the Geiger counter amplifying the faint eupnea of fossilized shells, thousands of years ago. Its resinous, sappy and majestic floating flowers are like “potions in a traveling show.” The layering is heavy (14.5 per cent ABV) and variegated, like sands and snails in a bottle or a vessel filled with an alcohol made from nature’s natural and fermenting bounty; carboniferous forest cosmology and the unpronounceable names of exotic fruit. Then there is the wooden smoulder, the white rock solder, the pine and the scene where “I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss.” The Gemischter Satz is granular but in liquid form, marbled and with a lovely wisp of oxidation. It exudes lemon custard and tonic in a wild yet beautiful breath of sauvage. It is your song. Tasted January 2015
Tabarrini Colle Grimaldesco Montefalco Sagrantino 2009, Docg Umbria, Italy (403139, $49.95, WineAlign)
Here thickness is applied in every way imaginable. Sagrantino from the maw of the beast; raw, big-boned, musky, chewing sinew and spitting out teeth. Though fierce and ancient, eliciting vegetal scents as if Pliny’s natural history were scoured for every trace of pungent plants grown in iron rich earth, it is also the most modern expression of Umbria, or all of Italy even. In so many ways it’s pretty Gestanko, composted and of an incomparable spume. But it also desensitizes and endears in a soulful, ethereal way “like scattered leaves,” blowing in a stiff breeze. It folds back the skin of time, in waves of heat and at times is so very sweet. Bring this to the apocalyptic marshmallow roast. Leaves the red wine city in ruins and in the dust. Sagrantino at 16.5 %. Burn, baby burn. Tasted January 2015 @ @
Good to go!