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The ‘Whats’ of Reds

Further to Robert Parker’s fantastic article introducing ‘The Three Ws of Wine‘, here Mr. Parker goes into a little greater detail exploring the ‘Whats’ of various red wines. Learn more at

Cabernet Franc

What: Cabernet Franc
Color: Dark ruby to purple
Body: Medium
Character: Best used as a blending grape as it often lacks body
Flavours: Flowers, menthol, red and black fruits
Tannin: Low to moderate
Where it’s Best: Loire Valley, Bordeaux, occasionally California and New Zealand
With: Vegetarian dishes, fish with red wine sauces or brown stocks, veal and chicken in white wine sauces

Cabernet Sauvignon

What: Cabernet Sauvignon
Color: Dark purple to black purple
Body: Medium to full
Character: Tannic, muscular, wines with gravitas
Flavours: Black currants, cedar wood, cigar tobacco, licorice, smoke
Tannin: High
Where it’s Best: Bordeaux (Médoc), California (Napa Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains), Argentina, Chile, Australia (Barossa, McLaren Vale, Margaret River)
With: Roast beef, leg of lamb, classic European cuisines, grilled steaks, Waygu beef


What: Gamay
Color: Medium ruby to dark ruby
Body: Medium
Character: Very fruity/expressive in a relatively straightforward, simple style
Flavours: Strawberries, cherries, raspberries, and occasionally spring flowers
Tannin: Very Low
Where it’s Best: Southern Burgundy, Beaujolais
With: An all purpose light red served chilled that works well with everything from American hamburgers, pizza, and barbecue, to relatively sophisticated red meat and fish dishes such as tuna, along with an assortment of Asian cuisines


What: Grenache
Color: Medium ruby to dark plum
Body: Medium to full
Character: Silky and voluptuous
Flavours: Kirsch liqueur, essence of cherries, raspberries, licorice, pepper, Provençal herbs, lavender
Tannin: Low
Where it’s Best: Rhône Valley of France and Spain (Garnacha)
With: Very flexible, all poultry (turkey included), meats, vegetarian, pizza, most Asian cuisines, especially Chinese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Korean kalbi ribs


What: Malbec
Color: Very dark to purple
Body: Medium to full
Character: Largely a failure in France where it produced rustic and coarse wine
Flavours: Dark berries, blackberries, cassis, plums, figs
Tannin: Moderate and high
Where it’s Best: Argentina
With: Roasted and grilled meats, charcuterie, duck, patés


What: Merlot
Color: Dark ruby to dark purple
Body: Medium to full
Character: Usually soft
Flavours: Black cherries, mocha, coffee, black tea, tomato skins, plums
Tannin: Moderate
Where it’s Best: Bordeaux (Medoc), California (Napa Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains), Argentina, Chile, occasionally Australia
With: Roasted or grilled vegetables, pork, duck

‘Red Grapes’ via . Used through Creative Commons licence.


What: Mourvèdre
Color: Dark ruby to dark purple
Body: Medium to full
Character: Earthy, tannic, and ruggedly constructed
Flavours: Tree bark, fresh mushrooms, damp soil, forest floor, licorice, blueberries, and raspberries
Tannin: Medium to high
Where it’s Best: Southern France, Spain, and a few selected microclimates of California
With: Relatively flexible with food, it can work with numerous Provençal dishes such as eggplant and tomato-based sauces as well as barbecued birds, and beef, pork, and chicken roasts. It does not match well with any type of seafood.


What: Nebbiolo
Color: Medium ruby to dark garnet
Body: Medium to full
Character: Very fragrant, noble, rich, powerful, but surprisingly light/elegant
Flavours: Pure cherry liqueur infused with licorice, herbs, roses and tar
Tannin: High
Where it’s Best: Northern Italy, particularly Piedmont
With: Mushroom and vegetarian dishes, pastas, goat, lamb, various risottos, dim sum

Petite Sirah

What: Petite Sirah
Color: Opaque purple to nearly blue/black
Body: Full
Character: Forbiddingly tannic, backward, and nearly impossible to fully appreciate until it has had 8-10 years of bottle age
Flavours: Blackberries, incense, acacia flowers, tar, pepper, and creosote
Tannin: High
Where it’s Best: Hot climates such as coastal areas of California and southern Australia
With: Meat-based or pungent game dishes, including intensely flavored wild birds and other heavy foods; hence it has a reputation as a wine for winter drinking and eating

Pinot Noir

What: Pinot Noir
Color: Light to dark ruby
Body: Light to medium, occasionally full
Character: Cherries, forest floor, strawberries, fresh mushrooms, herbs
Tannin: Moderate
Where it’s Best: Burgundy, California (Russian River, Sonoma Coast, Santa Barbara), Oregon, Champagne – sparkling Blanc de Noirs
With: Salmon, tuna (especially toro), roast chicken, lamb, veal, Mediterranean and Vietnamese dishes, Peking duck, smoky BBQ


What: Sangiovese
Color: Medium ruby
Body: Medium
Character: Leafy, earthy, medium-bodied
Flavours: Tart, crisp, strawberries, often herbal and acidic
Tannin: Low to moderate, but acids are often high
Where it’s Best: Southern Italy, particularly Tuscany
With: Tomato-based pasta dishes, rabbit, chili, grilled beef

Syrah / Shiraz

What: Syrah / Shiraz
Color: Dark ruby to black/purple
Body: Medium to full
Character: Fleshy
Flavours: Blackberries, cassis, pepper, tar, coffee
Tannin: Moderate
Where it’s Best: Northern Rhône Valley, Southern Australia (Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Clare Valley), California
With: Grilled meats, patés, smoked foods, wild game, charcuterie, Kobe/Wagyu beef


What: Tempranillo
Color: Dark ruby to opaque purple
Body: Medium
Character: Silky
Flavours: Sweet cherries, black currants, loamy soil, earthy undertones
Tannin: Moderate
Where it’s Best: Spain
With: Spanish tapas, paella, roast lamb, chicken, smoked or Peking duck


What: Zinfandel
Color: Dark ruby to dark purple
Body: Medium to full
Character: Tart, spicy, peppery, herbal
Flavours: Cherries, earth, spice, pepper, and dark wild berries
Tannin: Low, but acidity is moderate to high
Where it’s Best: California, and a handful from Australia
With: Grilled meats, pizza, hamburgers, Korean BBQ, Kobe/Wagyu beef

The ‘Whats’ of Whites

Further to Robert Parker’s fantastic article introducing ‘The Three Ws of Wine‘, here Mr. Parker goes into a little greater detail exploring the ‘Whats’ of various white wines. Learn more at


What: Chardonnay
Color: Light gold to greenish light gold
Body: Light to full
Character: Dry, creamy, oaky, rich
Flavors: Diverse, including lemons, pears, peaches, tropical fruits, oranges, pineapples, honeysuckle
Where it’s Best: Burgundy, California, Australia, Champagne (sparkling Blanc de Blancs)
With: Shellfish (especially lobster, crab, and scallops), shark’s fin soup, miso marinated cod

Chenin Blanc

What: Chenin Blanc
Color: Light to greenish straw; sometimes gold
Body: Light
Character: Frequently possesses residual sugar
Flavours: Oranges, apple blossoms, spring flower garden
Where it’s best: Loire Valley (Savennières, Vouvray)
With: Indian and Malaysian cuisine, poultry in white sauces, cheeses, and fruit-based desserts (if it is sweet Chenin Blanc)


What: Gewurztraminer
Color: Light gold to deep gold
Body: Medium-bodied
Character: Exuberant to flamboyant, intense aromatics, relatively heavy and oily flavors. Dry to sweet; usually a love-it or hate-it wine.
Flavours: Potent aromatics, very fragrant, roses, lychee nuts, peaches, apricots
Where it’s best: Alsace, Northern Italy
With: Asian cuisines both spicy and not spicy, such as Cantonese, Sichuan, Korean BBQ, kimchi, dim sum

Grüner Veltliner

What: Grüner Veltliner
Color: Light greenish/gold
Body: Medium to full
Character: Citrusy, with surprising strength and medium to full body
Flavours: Quince, white currants, white flowers, honeysuckle, and nectarines
Where it’s best: Austria
With: Any fish or shellfish dish, lighter dishes of grilled veal and chicken, and an assortment of Asian cuisines, especially Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, and the spicier Chinese cuisines such as Sichuan and Hunan

Pinot Gris

What: Pinot Gris (Grigio)
Color: Light straw to deep gold
Body: Light
Character: Ranges from fruity and medium weight to rich, extravagant and long-lived. Usually offers considerable flexibility with food.
Flavours: Apples, orange skins, honey
Where it’s best: Alsace, Northern Italy
With: Curried dishes, lighter fish and poultry dishes, smoked salmon


What: Riesling
Color: Light, pale straw to greenish straw
Body: Light
Character: Fresh, delicate; usually possesses residual sugar and high acidity
Flavours: Citrus, grapefruit, green apples
Where it’s best: Germany, Australia (Clare Valley), Austria, Alsace
With: Root vegetables, raw vegetables, delicate fish, shellfish, oysters, shrimp, most Asian cuisines, especially fish and shellfish work well, and Riesling can stand up to the fiery cuisine of Thailand

Sauvignon Blanc

What: Sauvignon Blanc
Color: Light straw even very pale and almost watery in appearance
Body: Light to medium
Character: Flexible with an assortment of foods; always zesty and vibrant
Flavours: Pungent green beans, freshly mowed grass, grapefruit, melons, figs
Where it’s best: Loire Valley (Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé), California, New Zealand
With: Sushi, oysters, vegetarian dishes, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese cuisine, fatty cheeses

White Rhône Varietals

What: White Rhône Varietals (Marsanne, Roussanne, & Viognier)
Color: Medium gold to very gold
Body: Medium to full-bodied
Character: Oily/viscous
Flavours: Nutty, floral (rose petals), marmalade, ripe jam
Where it’s best: Rhône Valley, California (Central Coast), Southern Australia
With: Intensely flavored fish and poultry dishes, confit of duck, smoked seafood, Mediterranean vegetable dishes, shark’s fin soup, Asian hot pot, dim sum

A Sophisticated Trini Wine

By Jeremy Matouk, published on Island Origins Magazine on the 20th of November, 2017

In spite of ridiculously high duties on wine, more and more, Trinibagonians are discovering the wine experience. Compared to beer and rum, our traditional drinks of choice, decent wine is quite expensive. But we are, nonetheless, developing a fascination with variety and exploring finer options in the process.

For me, the fascination began 40 years ago while at university trying to impress my future bride, but really became a passion in my 30s and thereafter. Having tried hundreds of wines from different countries and regions I became more and more inquisitive. In 2004 I decided to take a second honeymoon and explore several of Italy’s regions—specifically Piedmont, Tuscany and Umbria. I needed to experience first-hand where the wines were from, and to learn more about the people that made them.

What I discovered was such a romantic and educational experience. I knew then I had to be part of the world of wine—either as a winery owner or wine merchant. To do either necessitated much more travel and exploration. Over the next few years I visited wine regions in Napa, Sonoma, Chile, Argentina, Spain and France, so different from the cane fields that yielded the spirits of my home. Travel and exploration have taught me that all great wine has locational identity. Wine writers call it ‘terroir’ but it is more than that. It is also about culture, cuisine and tradition.

Our multi-cultural heritage and cuisine here on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, lend themselves very well to all sorts of wine experimentation. A personal favorite with local cuisine is White Hermitage (from the Northern Rhône Valley) with curry. It’s a culinary marriage made in heaven. All it takes is an adventurous spirit and an open mind.

Photograph by Kyle Walcott via Island Origins Magazine. (Scaled via AI.)

Cover photograph by Photo Mix via

A Potel Story in Burgundy

First of all, my parents came in 1964, and they bought a part of the Duveault Blochet vineyard, 12 Hectares in Côtes de Beaune. Volnay, Pommard and Santenay. Then they bought the house in Volnay, with great cellars and winery.

My father was a perfectionist, and he was a modern winemaker for that time. He vinified is 1964 in Santenay, and bring the casks in Volnay. At that time he was using 100% new barrels, and all cluster during vinification. The wines stay 18 months in barrels, and bottling without filtration. But two racking during the élevage.

Then 1965 came, first vintage in Volnay! A very bad year, a lot of botrytis, difficult at that time. So he was the first to do the ‘triage’. He bring the equivalent of 65000 bottles and at the end he bottled only 18000 bottles. The rest was the triage! Everybody in the village where thinking he was creasy! What about now?

Then he vinified the great 1966, the bad 1968, the great 1969,1970,1971… All those years where aging in 100% new barrels. He change in 1978, and he decide to drop the amount of new casks to 35%. He was smilling when the fashion of new casks came in the 80’.

In 1973, he was trying the ‘Saignée’, with all the problem of bad vintage, his focus was to find a way to win concentration. Again, he was one of the first to do the saignées, and in the 80’ he was one of the first to used the concentration machine made by Durafroid. The idea was to take out some of the water from the juice. Because the saignée was not a good system, the first juice is the best! We try the machine few years, and then we stop, it was not great for the terroir definition.

He work a lot finding new ideas, acidification, sugar, thermo tanks, roter tanks… He was always trying new techniques.

Vineyard management was the same focus. He try and make some machine for the soil, for the pruning, a lot of work with the clonale selection…

A great Estate, and a great team him and my mother, they did a lot of innovation.

Also they have been very successful on marketing. Since the start, they have been selling the wines cellar door, with a newsletter every year. 50% of the wines was sold directly from the Estate to consumers.

Then they organize a great world reputation, and the wines was going in 30 country.

I start working in 1987, at Domaine Matrot. After a difficult time at school, my father ask me to work with Thierry, and that experience was great. I loved wine from that point, I was nearly 18, and I ask to stop school one year to work.

So I went in Australia, and I worked for Keith Mugford, who was just starting his new life as the new owner of Moss Wood in Margaret River. Great time, and great people.

From that point I worked for a lot of people around the world of wine. In Burgundy for Laurent Juillot, and for Christophe Roumier.

In Australia for Moss Wood again, for Leeuwin Estate, Wirra Wirra, and then for the great John and Marly Middleton at Mount Mary. In California for Tom Delhinger.

Great experience for a young boy, and great moment for life. I learn a lot about vineyard management, the experience of new terroir, the difficulty fining new style, the date of picking, the clone selection, the climate, the crop..

In the winery, it was very good to learn about all the techniques, specially coming from a part of the world where we don’t used all those product. So I work with yeast, DAP, bacteries, enzymes and all sort of oenologie materials.

I think it was very important for me to learn about all that, and to find my own way after all. It’s always important to go very far, to learn, to get confidence on what we doing.

So the new world was great, and my little experience help me now. I still have a good contact with Keith, and I send him people for harvest, and he send me people too.

At Domaine Juillot it was a great experience, because Laurent was in charge of the vinification for the first time in 1988, and we have a lot of work to do. Great vintage, one of the best in my life, but very difficult because our approach was too easy. It’s a vintage where the best wines came from all custer, and because the molecules of tannins where so big it was difficult to extract. So long fermentation and long time in cask. Too many wines are dry now! If you try Clos Tavannes from my father, all cluster it’s a great wine.

At Domaine Matrot, I learn to be strong in what you doing, no fashion. And so much with Pierre Matrot, for the vineyard management, super guy.

At Domaine Roumier, I was lucky to work with Jean Mary, Christophe father. Again one of the best winemaker in Burgundy, so elegant. With Christophe I learn how to be super precise, like my father.

But from all of them, I learn the most important, is to put the best attention about details, small details!

I came back at Domaine de la Pousse D’Or, in 1992, and I worked there until my father death in 1997. But I help from 1989 for the vineyard management, and I bring the Estate to lutte raisonnée.

Difficult time between son and father, but great time. I was in charge of the vineyard, and I said that the time was good to start the organic culture. So he agree, but he said it was my problem, and he wants great grapes with no problem. So we worked a lot, and we bring the vineyard back. Before his death, he said to my mother that the vineyard was coming back to the quality of the 60’.

Working for him was very good, and I learn so much that I was ready to start my own little house. In 1996, I said to my father that Pousse D’Or was not for me, and it will be difficult to buy all the share. I decide to start a little négoce, and to have my own company. So we start together, and we bought grapes in 1997, the idea was to sell the vineyards, and to keep the house and the stock with his share. But he died suddenly, and the associates sale there share to somebody.

So I start alone the Nicolas POTEL house. A little winery in Volnay, then I find a little winery in Nuits St Georges. With all my contact, I start very quick, and I find the best wines in Côte D’Or. All my friend, the good winemakers from here sell me wines.

I vinified 10 hectares in 1998, and I bought 200 barrels of wines. Then I find a new winery in front of my cellar, the train Station. So I have been working there since 2000 vintage.

Coming from an estate, it was very easy to find the best vineyard, and to talk with the growers. I help a lot of them to start on organic, and I always try to be fare in term of the price. It was new for Burgundy to pay the same price for grapes than wine.

I know that my time in the new world help me a lot to start my company. I have a lot of freedom at that time, no Estate, no reputation, and a lot to try.

I decide to be free from oenologic materials. So all natural, only sugar at that time, no acidification, no yeast, no enzymes… I start to do filtration with the 2000 vintage and from that I have been changing a lot of small details to get clear wines. I start with changing my box, smaller box for the grapes. Then vibrant table to take the sediment out, I change the destumer for a new one that nobody have in Burgundy and it’s called ‘égreneur’, we bring the grapes inside the tanks with small container so we get full berries for vinified.

I change my bag press for a vertical press, that was one of the great issue to get pure juice coming from pressing. Normally you have to take the free juice, and then leaving the press juice out from the cuvée. With the vertical press, the press juice are beautiful, so it’s going to the final blend just after pressing. The juice are very clear, so we don’t need enzymes! and no filtration. We change the pomps, we are using an Italian pomp called Francesca, which push the wine, again it’s helping to get clear juice. The details from the racking, with the moon, and the days of racking! I was telling you that I learned from my different boss the ‘soucis du détail’ and how to improve to get better wines.

‘A Drizzly Day in Burgudy’ by Eric Huybrechts. Used via Creative Commons licence.

In 2002, the crisis was hard, and we have difficulties to sell the 2001 vintage. So we decide with my wife to sell some share to a new partner. We find a lot of people, but we never finalise the deal.

In 2003, my wife was pregnant, and we have some difficulty during that time. My wife as to stay in bed at the hospital for 4 months. So the year was very special, and I wasn’t 100% at my work, mainly at the hospital with my wife.

We met the Cottin brothers in july 2003, and they want to be partner but not 30%, they gives us an option for 100% of the company. The price was good, and the future was clement. We make a deal in October, and we start the joint venture in January 2004.

I was doing 5,000,000€ in 2003, and I bring the company up to 9,000,000€ in 2008, we worked like creasy, and everything was going well until the crisis coming.

The Cottin decide to sell the group, and they fired Olivier Martin who was the head manager of the group in January 2009, then Thomas Leclerc who was the second of the group. In march they fired me, and they said that I was not making the wines for them, it was Fabrice Lesne my second who was vinified the wines since 2001. It’s was creasy from them to buy my company in 2004, with this vision that I wasn’t doing anything?

They are big négociant, they never liked the fact that I was vinified, and they never liked free person in a group. I was working 120% for the little company, but maybe not 150%?

I always believe to make a great brand in Burgundy, you have to vinified, and you have to get the best vineyard. So you can’t do a great cuvée of Santenots coming from 10 producers, but you can do 5 great Volnay 1er Cru from 10 different producer in small lot.

And for me the terroir is the key, to bring the brand at a high level, you should have a great line. It was good for them for a time, but then they decide to reduce the range to a very few wines. And to increase the little wines by far.

Margin is also important for the value of work, they prefer to sell with very small margin and high volume. That is not my conception, and again the brand was to new to increase the volume, and to be at a lower level.

There is some good winemaker for high volume, I am not like this, I am not coming from that training.

In 2005, one of my grower ask me if I want to take back is vineyard ‘En Fermage’, for 25 years, with an option to buy the vineyard at the end. I ask the Cottin, who said they don’t want vineyard. I rent the vineyard, and I start my little Estate with one worker. I have all ready 1.2 ha from my mother, and I always sell my grapes to my company since 1998. So the deal was easy, I make organic grapes, and I sell those to NP. In 2006 I took more vineyard, and when I did the invoice, the Cottin decide that the grapes were too expensive.

So I fight during one year about that with them, and I bring my avocat to fight them. After few month they agreed all, the time was going well, we did a great year. But I said that I will never sell grapes anymore, I start Domaine Potel, and we agreed to sell the wines under my label ‘POTEL’ and the Domaine as to give a commission for using the name. When they fired me, they used this pretext, that I was doing my own. But it was clear from our fight, that I will never be without anything, I have all ready a story with Pousse D’Or, and I know how hard it is to start again!

Then they fired Claire Forestier, saying that they don’t like small company! They fired Xavier Meney, my sell rep, because they didn’t liked him.

So now, I am not at in Nuits St Georges anymore. We change the name from Domaine POTEL to Domaine De Bellene. This is the old name of Beaune, coming from the god BELLENOS. I don’t want to fight with the old block, and I want freedom.

We have now 24 hectares, with very old vineyard, and a lot of Massale Selection. So we have Santenay Blanc Les Charmes Dessus young vines, St Romain Blanc from 5 differents vineyard old vines massale selection, Volnay from 20 years vineyard, a great cuvée of Bourgogne coming from my father vineyard planted in 1928 and some from comblanchien 50 years old. Then we have 6 Beaune 1° Cru, specially the BEAUNE 1° Cru Grèves 104 years old. We are starting a great massale selection from that vineyard, and I hired a girl to do a great analysis of the Terroir during one year at the faculté de Dijon. We have a old selection of Savigny les Beaune Village white and red. Two 1° cru from savigny. Then we have a great selection of old vines from côtes de Nuits Villages red and whites. In 2009, new line from Côtes de Nuits, 3 hectares of old Vines Nuits St georges, Vosne Romanée closed to Echezeaux, one vineyard of Vosne Romanée 1° Cru Suchots and then one vineyard of Nuits St Georges 1° Cru Chaignots. 80% is coming from Massale Selection.

I am still looking for great vineyard, a lot of people want to work with us. We are very proud to work on organic, and the vineyard are very healthy. So the owner of the vineyard talk to their friend and push them to talk with me. So we still have a great potential in the future. It’s more easy to control the vineyard, and it’s my life too. So now I am talking for some Grands Crus, with two growers, and I hope we can do something together.

I have always try to be organic, it’s my goal from Pousse D’Or, I believe that you are more in contact with the plant. You can’t do mistakes, and the worker prefer it now. It’s more work, and you can’t be completely organic because the tractors, but I am using only sulpher and copper! 15 times this year, so we are using only 6 KG / ha. In conventionnel, they are using 1.5 KG per spray! Now a lot of my customer like the idea, and the people ask for those wines. The quality increase in the last years, that’s the answer.

So I believe that if I am in organic, I have to do all. So the building is rebuild with the Canadien architecture concept of HQI High Quality Environmental. It’s hard, you have to used only clean product, and if you can closed to you. So I by my wood from Burgundy only, the painting is organic, the isolation is coming from hash, special friendly light, solar pad, rain water, and I will get next year a heating machine working with wood who will come from our pruning! So I will heat all my building with my vineyard. We want to be free CO2, and low energy. Recycle bottles, recycle paper for the labels, organic glue, wax again capsules and the box have no colour only carton. As you see, we try to be friendly from the vineyard to the winery.

Vinification as simple as possible, with the same care of Nuits St Georges, no oenological products, no acidification and no sugar. Natural.

Then in wood for 14 month, with about 20% new only for the cru, and a lot of big barrels 600 liters for the whites. To keep them longer. Few month in tanks, and bottling by gravity without filtration.

I still control the old wines selection, and we have a lot of new wines coming. I always loved the old wines, and it’s a pleasure to sell them. I am still partner with Stéphane AVIRON, and the little house is going well. We want to build a new winery next year.

Roche de Bellene, is the new name of my négoce. I just make a deal with two great house in Burgundy, to used their facilities for vinified some wines. I am coming back tomorrow for that!

Best regards,
Nicolas POTEL

A Glossary of Wine Terms


Wines, no matter how well made, contain quantities of acetic acidity that have a vinegary smell. If there is an excessive amount of acetic acidity, the wine will have a vinegary smell and be a flawed, acetic wine.

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Wines need natural acidity to taste fresh and lively, but an excess of acidity results in an acidic wine that is tart and sour.

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The acidity level in a wine is critical to its enjoyment and livelihood. The natural acids that appear in wine are citric, tartaric, malic, and lactic. Wines from hot years tend to be lower in acidity, whereas wines from cool, rainy years tend to be high in acidity. Acidity in a wine can preserve the wine’s freshness and keep the wine lively, but too much acidity, which masks the wines flavors and compresses its texture, is a flaw.

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As the term suggests, the taste left in the mouth when one swallows is the aftertaste. This word is a synonym for length or finish. The longer the aftertaste lingers in the mouth (assuming it is a pleasant taste), the finer the quality of the wine.

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Aggressive is usually applied to wines that are either high in acidity or have harsh tannins, or both.

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Angular wines are wines that lack roundness, generosity, and depth. Wine from poor vintages or wines that are too acidic are often described as being angular.

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Aroma is the smell of a young wine before it has had sufficient time to develop nuances of smell that are then called its bouquet. The word aroma is commonly used to mean the smell of a relatively young, unevolved wine.

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Wines that are astringent are not necessarily bad or good wines. Astringent wines are harsh and coarse to taste, either because they are too young and tannic and just need time to develop, or because they are not well made. The level of tannins (if it is harsh) in a wine contributes to its degree of astringence.

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Wines that are austere are generally not terribly pleasant wines to drink. An austere wine is a hard, rather dry wine that lacks richness and generosity. However, young Rhônes are not as austere as young Bordeaux.

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An adjective used to describe (1) a young largely unevolved, closed, and undrinkable wine, (2) a wine that is not ready to drink, or (3) a wine that simply refuses to release its charms and personality.

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One of the most desired traits in a wine is good balance, where the concentration of fruit, level of tannins, and acidity are in total harmony. Balanced wines are symmetrical and tend to age gracefully.

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An unclean, farmyard, fecal aroma that is imparted to a wine because of unclean barrels or unsanitary winemaking facilities.

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As this descriptive term implies, most red wines have an intense berry fruit character that can suggest blackberries, raspberries, black cherries, mulberries, or even strawberries and cranberries.

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A big wine is a large-framed, full-bodied wine with an intense and concentrated feel on the palate. Most red Rhône wines are big wines.

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A pronounced smell of blackcurrant fruit is commonly associated with certain Rhône wines. It can vary in intensity from faint to very deep and rich.

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Body is the weight and fullness of a wine that can be sensed as it crosses the palate. full-bodied wines tend to have a lot of alcohol, concentration, and glycerin.

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Botrytis cinerea

The fungus that attacks the grape skins under specific climatic conditions (usually alternating periods of moisture and sunny weather). It causes the grape to become super concentrated because it causes a natural dehydration. Botrytis cinerea is essential for the great sweet white wines of Barsac and Sauternes. It rarely occurs in the Rhône Valley because of the dry, constant sunshine and gusty winds.

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As a wine’s aroma becomes more developed from bottle aging, the aroma is transformed into a bouquet that is hopefully more than just the smell of the grape.

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A hefty, muscular, full-bodied wine with plenty of weight and flavor, although not always the most elegant or refined sort of wine.

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I think of California Zinfandel when the term briery comes into play, denoting that the wine is aggressive and rather spicy.

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Brilliant relates to the colour of the wine. A brilliant wine is one that is clear, with no haze or cloudiness to the colour.

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As red wines age, their colour changes from ruby/purple to dark ruby, to medium ruby, to ruby with an amber edge, to ruby with a brown edge. When a wine is browning it is usually fully mature and not likely to get better.

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carbonic maceration

This vinification method is used to make soft, fruity, very accessible wines. Whole clusters of grapes are put into a vat that is then filled with carbonic gas. This system is used when fruit is to be emphasised in the final wine in contrast to structure and tannin.

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Rhône reds can have a bouquet that suggests either faintly or overtly the smell of cedarwood. It is a complex aspect of the bouquet.

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If a wine has a rather dense, viscous texture from a high glycerin content, it is often referred to as being chewy. High-extract wines from great vintages can often be chewy, largely because they have higher alcohol hence high levels of glycerin, which imparts a fleshy mouthfeel.

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The term closed is used to denote that the wine is not showing its potential, which remains locked in because it is too young. Young wines often close up about 12-18 months after bottling, and depending on the vintage and storage conditions, remain in such a state for several years to more than a decade.

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One of the most subjective descriptive terms used, a complex wine is a wine that the taster never gets bored with and finds interesting to drink. Complex wines tend to have a variety of subtle scents and flavors that hold one’s interest in the wine.

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Fine wines, whether they are light-, medium-, or full-bodied, should have concentrated flavors. Concentrated denotes that the wine has a depth and richness of fruit that gives it appeal and interest. Deep is a synonym for concentrated.

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A corked wine is a flawed wine that has taken on the smell of cork as a result of an unclean or faulty cork. It is perceptible in a bouquet that shows no fruit, only the smell of musty cork, which reminds me of wet cardboard.

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Many producers in the Rhône Valley produce special, deluxe lots of wine or a lot of wine from a specific grape variety that they bottle separately. These lots are often referred to as cuvées.

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If you are an ice cream and chocolate lover, you know the feeling of eating a huge sundae of rich vanilla ice cream lavished with hot fudge and real whipped cream. If you are a wine enthusiast, a wine loaded with opulent, even unctuous layers of fruit, with a huge bouquet, and a plump, luxurious texture can be said to be decadent.

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Essentially the same as concentrated, expressing the fact that the wine is rich, full of extract, and mouth filling.

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As this word implies, delicate wines are light, subtle, understated wines that are prized for their shyness rather than for an extroverted, robust character. White wines are usually more delicate than red wines. Few Rhône red wines can correctly be called delicate.

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650-liter Burgundy barrels which are essentially the equivalent of three regular barrels.

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Wines that smell and taste unstructured and unfocused are said to be diffuse. When red wines are served at too warm a temperature they often become diffuse.

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double decanting

This is done by first decanting the wine into a decanter and then rinsing the original bottle out with non-chlorinated water and then immediately repouring the wine from the decanter back into the bottle. It varies with the wine as to how long you cork it.

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A dumb wine is also a closed wine, but the term dumb is used more pejoratively. Closed wines may need only time to reveal their richness and intensity. Dumb wines may never get any better.

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May be used in both a negative and a positive sense; however, I prefer to use earthy to denote a positive aroma of fresh, rich, clean soil. Earthy is a more intense smell than woody or truffle scents.

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Although more white wines than red are described as being elegant, lighter-styled, graceful, balance red wines can be elegant.

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This is everything in a wine besides water, sugar, alcohol, and acidity.

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Like extroverted, somewhat hyper people, wines too can be gushing with fruit and seem nervous and intensely vigorous.

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When the Rhône has an exceptionally hot year for its crop and the wines attain a super sort of maturity, they are often quite rich and concentrated, with low to average acidity. Often such wines are said to be fat, which is a prized commodity. If they become too fat, that is a flaw and they are then called flabby.

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A wine that is too fat or obese is a flabby wine. Flabby wines lack structure and are heavy to taste.

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Fleshy is a synonym for chewy, meaty, or beefy. It denotes that the wine has a lot of body, alcohol, and extract, and usually a high glycerin content. Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Hermitage are particularly fleshy wines.

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Wines made from the Muscat or Viognier grape have a flowery component, and occasionally a red wine will have a floral scent.

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Both a fine wine’s bouquet and flavor should be focused. Focused simply means that the scents, aromas, and flavors are precise and clearly delineated. If they are not, the wine is like an out-of-focus picture-diffuse, hazy, and possibly problematic.

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An adjective used to describe wines that are (1) delicious, evolved, and close to maturity, (2) wines that border on being flamboyant or ostentatious, or (3) unusually evolved and/or quickly maturing wines.

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Large oak barrels that vary enormously in size but are significantly larger than the normal oak barrel used in Bordeaux or the piece used in Burgundy. They are widely used in the Rhône Valley.

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Freshness in both young and old wines is a welcome and pleasing component. A wine is said to be fresh when it is lively and cleanly made. The opposite of fresh is stale.

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A very good wine should have enough concentration of fruit so that it can be said to be fruity. Fortunately, the best wines will have more than just a fruity personality.

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Wines rich in extract, alcohol, and glycerin are full-bodied wines. Most Rhône wines are full-bodied.

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In the southern Rhône Valley and Provence, this is the landscape of small slopes and plateaus. This Provençal word applies to these windswept hilltops/slopes inhabited by scrub-brush and Provençal herb outcroppings. The smell of garrigue is often attributed to southern Rhône Valley wines. Suggesting more than the smell of herbes de Provence, it encompasses an earthy/herbal concoction of varying degrees of intensity.

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Green wines are wines made from underripe grapes; they lack richness and generosity as well as having a vegetal character. Green wines are infrequently made in the Rhône, although vintages such as 1977 were characterised by a lack of ripening.

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Wines with abrasive, astringent tannins or high acidity are said to be hard. Young vintages of Rhône wines can be hard, but they should never be harsh.

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If a wine is too hard it is said to be harsh. Harshness in a wine, young or old, is a flaw.

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Certain styles of wine are meant to be inspected; they are introspective and intellectual wines. Others are designed to provide sheer delight, joy, and euphoria. Hedonistic wines can be criticised because in one sense they provide so much ecstasy that they can be called obvious, but in essence, they are totally gratifying wines meant to fascinate and enthrall-pleasure at its best.

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Many wines have a distinctive herbal smell that is generally said to be herbaceous. Specific herbal smells can be of thyme, lavender, rosemary, oregano, fennel, or basil and are common in Rhône wines.

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herbes de Provence

Provence is known for the wild herbs that grow prolifically throughout the region. These include lavender, thyme, sage, rosemary, and oregano. It is not just an olfactory fancy to smell many of these herbs in Rhône Valley wines, particularly those made in the south.

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Also known as shallow, hollow wines are diluted and lack depth and concentration.

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A common personality trait of specific white Rhône wines, a honeyed wine is one that has the smell and taste of bee’s honey.

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Rather than meaning that the temperature of the wine is too warm to drink, hot denotes that the wine is too high in alcohol and therefore leaves a burning sensation in the back of the throat when swallowed. Wines with alcohol levels in excess of 14.5% often taste hot if the requisite depth of fruit is not present.

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inox vats

This is the French term for stainless steel vats that are used for both fermentation and storage of wine.

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Intensity is one of the most desirable traits of a high-quality wine. Wines of great intensity must also have balance. They should never be heavy or cloying. Intensely concentrated great wines are alive, vibrant, aromatic, layered, and texturally compelling. Their intensity adds to their character, rather than detracting from it.

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When wines have a great intensity of fruit from excellent ripeness they can be jammy, which is a very concentrated, flavorful wine with superb extract. In great vintages such as 1961, 1978, 1985, 1989, 1990, and 1995, some of the wines are so concentrated that they are said to be jammy.

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Kisselguhr filtration system

This is a filtration system using diatomaceous earth as the filtering material, rather than cellulose, or in the past, before it was banned, asbestos.

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A leafy character in a wine is similar to a herbaceous character only in that it refers to the smell of leaves rather than herbs. A wine that is too leafy is a vegetal or green wine.

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Lean wines are slim, rather streamlined wines that lack generosity and fatness but can still be enjoyable and pleasant.

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A synonym for fresh or exuberant, a lively wine is usually young wine with good acidity and a thirst-quenching personality.

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A very desirable trait in any fine wine is that it be long in the mouth. Long (or length) relates to a wine’s finish, meaning that after you swallow the wine, you sense its presence for a long time. (Thirty seconds to several minutes is great length.) In a young wine, the difference between something good and something great is the length of the wine.

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Lush wines are velvety, soft, richly fruity wines that are both concentrated and fat. A lush wine can never be an astringent or hard wine.

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In great vintages where there is a high degree of ripeness and superb concentration, some wines can turn out to be so big, full-bodied, and rich that they are called massive. A great wine such as the 1961 or 1990 Hermitage La Chapelle is a textbook example of a massive wine.

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A chewy, fleshy wine is also said to be meaty.

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This term describes a wine made totally of one specific varietal.

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Used to denote a vineyard owned exclusively by one proprietor, the word monopole appears on the label of a wine made from such a vineyard.

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Many vineyards are fragmented, with multiple growers owning a portion of the same vineyard. Such a vineyard is often referred to as a morsellated vineyard.

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Big, rich, concentrated wines that are filled with fruit extract and are high in alcohol and glycerin are wines that tend to texturally fill the mouth. A mouth-filling wine is also a chewy, fleshy, fat wine.

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Wines aged in dirty barrels or unkept cellars or exposed to a bad cork take on a damp, musty character that is a flaw.

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The general smell and aroma of a wine as sensed through one’s nose and olfactory senses is often called the wine’s nose.

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Many red Rhône wines are aged from 6 months to 30 months in various sizes of oak barrels. At some properties, a percentage of the oak barrels may be new, and these barrels impart a toasty, vanillin flavor and smell to the wine. If the wine is not rich and concentrated, the barrels can overwhelm the wine, making it taste overly oaky. Where the wine is rich and concentrated and the winemaker has made a judicious use of barrels, however, the results are a wonderful marriage of fruit and oak.

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If a wine is not showing its true character, or is flawed or spoiled in some way, it is said to be “off.”

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An undesirable characteristic; grapes left too long on the vine become too ripe, lose their acidity, and produce wines that are heavy and balance. This can happen frequently in the hot viticultural areas of the Rhône Valley if the growers harvest too late.

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If a wine has been excessively exposed to air during either its making or aging, the wine loses freshness and takes on a stale, old smell and taste. Such a wine is said to be oxidised.

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A peppery quality to a wine is usually noticeable in many Rhône wines that have an aroma of black or white pepper and a pungent flavor.

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This term usually is more applicable to fragrant, aromatic white wines than to red wines. However, some of the dry white wines (particularly Condrieu) and sweet white wines can have a strong perfumed smell.

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A winemaking technique of punching down the cap of grape skins that forms during the beginning of the wine’s fermentation. This is done several times a day, occasionally more frequently, to extract colour, flavor, and tannin from the fermenting juice.

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Rich, concentrated wines can often have the smell and taste of ripe plums. When they do, the term plummy is applicable.

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Ponderous is often used as a synonym for massive, but in my usage a massive wine is simply a big, rich, very concentrated wine with balance, whereas a ponderous wine is a wine that has become heavy and tiring to drink.

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Wines that mature quickly are precocious. However the term also applies to wines that may last and evolve gracefully over a long period of time, but taste as if they are aging quickly because of their tastiness and soft, early charms.

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Wines produced from grapes that are overripe take on the character of prunes. Pruney wines are flawed wines.

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Late-harvest wines that are meant to be drunk at the end of a meal can often be slightly raisiny, which in some ports and sherries is desirable. However, a raisiny quality is a major flaw in a dinner wine.

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Wines that are high in extract, flavor, and intensity of fruit.

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A wine is ripe when its grapes have reached the optimum level of maturity. Less than fully mature grapes produce wines that are underripe, and overly mature grapes produce wines that are overripe.

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A very desirable character of wines, roundness occurs in fully mature wines that have lost their youthful, astringent tannins, and also in young wines that have soft tannins and low acidity.

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A general descriptive term that denotes that the wine is round, flavorful, and interesting to drink. shallow: A weak, feeble, watery or diluted wine lacking concentration is said to be shallow.

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An undesirable trait, sharp wines are bitter and unpleasant with hard, pointed edges.

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A synonym for velvety or lush, silky wines are soft, sometimes fat, but never hard or angular.

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Some wines, either because of the soil or because of the barrels used to age the wine, have a distinctive smoky character. Côte Rôtie and Hermitage often have a roasted or smoky quality.

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A soft wine is one that is round and fruity, low in acidity, and has an absence of aggressive, hard tannins.

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Wines often smell quite spicy with aromas of pepper, cinnamon, and other well-known spices. These pungent aromas are usually lumped together and called spicy.

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Dull, heavy wines that are oxidised or lack balancing acidity for freshness are called stale.

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A synonym for vegetal, but used more frequently to denote that the wine has probably had too much contact with the stems, resulting in a green, vegetal, or stalky character to the wine.

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A supple wine is one that is soft, lush, velvety, and very attractively round and tasty. It is a highly desirable characteristic because it suggests that the wine is harmonious.

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The tannins of a wine, which are extracted from the grape skins and stems, are, along with a wine’s acidity and alcohol, its lifeline. Tannins give a wine firmness and some roughness when young, but gradually fall away and dissipate. A tannic wine is one that is young and unready to drink.

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Sharp, acidic, lean, unripe wines are called tart. In general, a wine that is tart is not pleasurable.

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Rich, ripe, concentrated wines that are low in acidity are often said to be thick.

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A synonym for shallow; it is an undesirable characteristic for a wine to be thin, meaning that it is watery, lacking in body, and just diluted.

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tightly knit

Young wines that have good acidity levels, good tannin levels, and are well made are called tightly knit, meaning they have yet to open up and develop.

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A smell of grilled toast can often be found in wines because the barrels the wines are aged in are charred or toasted on the inside.

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Some red wines have the scent of fresh tobacco. It is a distinctive and wonderful smell in wine.

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troncais oak

This type of oak comes from the forest of Troncais in central France.

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Rich, lush, intense wines with layers of concentrated, soft, velvety fruit are said to be unctuous.

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An undesirable characteristic, wines that smell and taste vegetal are usually made from unripe grapes. In some wines, a subtle vegetable garden smell is pleasant and adds complexity, but if it is the predominant character, it is a major flaw.

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A textural description and synonym for lush or silky, a velvety wine is a rich, soft, smooth wine to taste. It is a very desirable characteristic.

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Viscous wines tend to be relatively concentrated, fat, almost thick wines with a great density of fruit extract, plenty of glycerin, and high alcohol content. If they have balancing acidity, they can be tremendously flavourful and exciting wines. If they lack acidity, they are often flabby and heavy.

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A volatile wine is one that smells of vinegar as a result of an excessive amount of acetic bacteria present. It is a seriously flawed wine.

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When a wine is overly oaky it is often said to be woody. Oakiness in a wine’s bouquet and taste is good up to a point. Once past that point, the wine is woody and its fruity qualities are masked by excessive oak aging.

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Why French Wines?

Some of you may be asking the question: ‘Why did Cru start off with exclusively French wines?’ After all the Trinidad and Tobago market is largely a market for New World varietals—Argentine Malbec, Chilean Cabernet, Australian Shiraz, etc, etc. French wine seems almost a throwback to the past, before all these New World varietals came to dominate the local market. What’s more, they are harder to understand and without specific wine knowledge it seems like the buyer is taking a chance. Will I like it? What does it taste like? How do I know what I’m getting?

There are good reasons for the popularity of these New World varietals—they are inexpensive (meaning a good selection between $80-150) and they are easy to understand (what’s to figure out with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot?) Wine buying made easy. Many customers I interface with tell me “I like Merlot” or “I like Pinot Noir.” French wines by comparison are something of a mystery. You can seldom tell what grape is in the bottle with French wine. It’s usually a place name. It’s like we’re supposed to know the grape type. Well, not really. The French are not too caught up with single varietals as the new world. They have been making wine before many new world countries were even discovered.

This is especially true with Bordeaux wines, typically a mixture of 4 grape types—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, in vastly varying proportions. Pomerol for example is almost exclusively Merlot while Pauillac is heavy on the Cabernet Sauvignon. And what about Graves, Margaux, St. Emilion, St. Estephe and all those other Bordeaux names? Yes, it can be quite a mystery and the French producers have been roundly criticised for assuming that consumers either have this knowledge or are willing to purchase on blind trust. No wonder the New World Varietals are so popular! It gets even more confusing when you start talking about regions like the Loire and the Rhône Valley. Who the hell buys that stuff any more?

France is Still the Benchmark

So why then did Cru go for French wines to start off its business? Are we mad or just pompous? Who would be so crazy to go against the grain of clear consumer preference? There are several reasons.

Having travelled to many parts of the wine world and meeting hundreds of winemakers, we have come to realise that France is still the reference point by which most, if not all, wines are judged and compared. Where do the Barolo makers go to learn about producing wine from the finicky Nebbiolo grape? To Burgundy where they have been producing wines from the even more finicky Pinot Noir for centuries and where vineyard and cellar techniques have been perfected over centuries.

When top Napa Valley wineries (known for their exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon) produce a ‘meritage’ (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) what do they compare it to? To a Bordeaux.

When Chilean wineries receive the highest praise the reference comparison is usually French Bordeaux or Burgundy. The Australians’ development of Shiraz is an attempt to reproduce the Côte-Rôties and Hermitages of the Northern Rhône and their more recent GSM blends are Southern Rhône combinations of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre of which Côte du Rhône and Châteaneuf-du-Pape are made. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

These comments are in no way intended to denigrate any of the new world wines. Indeed I find them excellent and they usually offer excellent value (with the exception of Napa Valley which I find ridiculously expensive). In fact I have drunk more non-French wine than I have drunk French wine over the years. There was a time when I drank little or no French wine at all. I was busy exploring all the new world had to offer. After a time however the lure of French wine returned. The problem was that the offerings on the local market, apart from Bordeaux, were few and far between and worse yet most of them were overpriced and did not offer a quality/price relationship that was attractive. But as Hugh Johnson says “Nobody argues with the primacy of France as the country that set the international standards by which wine is judged.”

Wines for the Wine Lover

In contemplating our entry into the local wine market the initial temptation was to follow the competition and begin with the wines of Chile, Argentina and Australia, as these were the most popular wines on the market. Had we done that we would have simply become yet another supplier of wines that were already widely available. To the wine lover looking to expand their selection we would be of little relevance or interest.

We decided instead to take the bold step of sourcing fine French wines that could compete on a price basis with the new world offerings of the other importers and offer wine lovers authentic alternatives. In this regard we noted that Burgundy and the Rhône Valley were particularly underrepresented in the local supply chain. So we did extensive research on both regions and then visited in person to find the makers we respected and who we felt would offer good value-for-money propositions.

We are very confident in the wines we have sourced. The public reaction so far has exceeded our expectations. What we did not originally contemplate is the fact that all the wines we have sourced are consistently well-made. Our decision to transport them and store them with utmost care has also paid off. Most customers tell us that, having tasted properly-transported and stored wines, they cannot go back to buying wines that have been exposed to excessive and prolonged heat and which have been thus damaged to a greater or lesser degree.

Of course we do not intend to restrict our selection to only French wines. As we grow we will add wines from all regions and countries. We will ensure however that every wine we import will be carefully selected and meticulously transported so as to guarantee that our customers enjoy the real thing.

The Enigma of Burgundy

I find it amazing that many Pinot Noir and Chardonnay lovers seem to have a problem with Burgundy. Why do I say that? Well, Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from California, Oregon, Washington State, Chile, New Zealand and Australia sell very well yet Burgundies tend to sit on the shelf. Why is that?

Burgundy is that wine region in eastern-central France that is situated between the cities of Dijon to the north and Lyon to the south, including the region of Chablis just to the north-west of Dijon. At its centre is the beautiful and charming medieval town of Beaune. The northern part is known as the Cote-de-Nuits, the central part as the Cote d’Or and the southern parts are the Cote Challonais and Beaujolais.

All red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir (except for Beaujolais which is made from Gamay) and all white Burgundy is made from Chardonnay. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are grapes varieties that are native to Burgundy and have been grown there for hundreds of years. They find their most sublime expressions in the soils of Burgundy and the hands of the Burgundian winemakers, yet so many wine consumers look at a bottle of Burgundy with a mixture of confusion and fear.

Perhaps the reason for this can be explained by two facts. First, most Burgundy is quite expensive. A decent bottle cannot be had for much under $200, the good stuff costs $300 plus and often much more. That’s at retail, in restaurants one can usually double or triple those prices. For most wine consumers that is big money. The reason behind the pricing is simply demand and supply. There is just not that much good Burgundy produced and wealthy wine buyers are prepared to pay top dollar for the good ones, which incidentally drives up the price of all Burgundy.

To give a stark example, it is all but impossible to get one’s hands on a bottle of Domaine de La Romanee-Conti’s ‘La Tache’ and those lucky enough to get a small allocation are willing to pay US$3-4,000 per bottle. Nothing from Bordeaux or anywhere else even approaches such price points for current vintages.

Secondly, Burgundy is a confusing region with many denominations and it’s hard to know the difference between a Chambolle-Musigny, a Gevrey-Chambertin and a Volnay, far less an Echezeaux, a Nuits St. Georges or a Santenay. And that’s just touching the surface; among the Villages, 1er Crus and Grand Crus there are also many single-vineyard names to contend with, which can make buying Burgundy a most intimidating experience for the uninitiated. Most people just shake their heads and buy simpler wines that they understand.

Worse again is the fact that paying top dollar does not guarantee one will get a tasty bottle of wine. I have had expensive Burgundies that are not worth a tenth of what I paid. Little wonder then that most wine consumers just shy away.

But what are they missing? Simply put, Burgundies are among the most elegant, complex and ethereal wines made on earth. They are able to express terroir—the effect of soil, climate and environment—like no other wines. It is possible to taste the difference between vineyards a mere few hundred yards apart. The levels of minerality, the subtlety and complexity of flavours, the gaminess and earthiness are often characteristics that only discriminating and experienced palates can appreciate. I know many wine lovers who just don’t appreciate these qualities and think Burgundy a complete waste of money. For those who do however, there is nothing else like it.

With wine drinking becoming a more and more popular pastime, there is a growing interest in Burgundy, especially among wine lovers who have become a little tired or bored with New-World varietals that offer no sense of locational identity.

Finding good Burgundy to buy therefore requires either a lot of patience, a lot of money or a good wine merchant who has done the homework.

After intensive research for about two years I actually went to the region and visited scores of wineries I had learned about. I swirled, smelt, tasted and spat hundreds of wines, some ordinary, some very good, some so brilliant they were “unspittable.” One day while walking the streets of Beaune I happened on a retailer who had a vast collection of the finest Burgundies in his showcase. Frederic Henry, who thankfully spoke good English, gave me a short but necessary education in Burgundy. I learned that there are 1,900 or so makers in the region of which only 100 are any good. Of that 100, 75 are horrendously expensive. The remaining 25 are the up-and-coming winemakers who are producing excellent wines but who have not yet earned the right to charge a fortune.

From that small group I chose to buy from just two. Nicolas Potel is something of a winemaker prodigy with a cult following. He purchases grapes from some appellations while owning his own vines in others. This young winemaker, whose father was himself a famous winemaker in his own right until his premature death, is gifted. It will not be long before his wines will cost an arm and a leg but so far he remains a value proposition.

The village of Vosne-Romanee is the home of the greatest vineyards in the Cote-de-Nuits. This village, for many wine connoisseurs, is the Mecca of the wine world. The wine writer Hugh Johnson put it very simply: “There are no common wines in Vosne.” Allen Meadows, probably the most respected expert on Burgundy, called the Vosne ‘The Pearl of The Cote’.

It is in this village that we found Domaine Jacques Cacheux and proprietor Patrice Cacheux. As was the case with Nicolas Potel, every sample we tasted was yummy, expressive and memorable. Patrice has, within the last six or seven years, raised the quality of his domaine to rank with the very best. He too will be ‘expensive’ before long.

As with all great Burgundy, these wines are smooth, expressive and subtle, offering complex flavours and delicate balance. For those of you who do not appreciate strong, mouth-drying tannins as a pre-requisite to full favour, red Burgundy offers an elegant and sublime wine experience. They are wines that work equally well as pre-dinner aperitifs as companions to food.

If you like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and are willing to explore, you will come to love Burgundy.

Tasting and Understanding Wine

When one reads tasting notes from the likes of Robert Parker, James Molesworth, James Suckling or many of the professional wine tasters whose publications we can buy or subscribe to on the internet, it can be quite intimidating, even while oftentimes being reasonably accurate and informative. The ability to discern specific flavours is definitely an acquired skill that comes from years of practice and often specific training. I know people who can tell you grape type, country of origin and even tell the percentages of a blend consisting of four to five grape types. Yes, such people do exist and their skill is often quite profound.

For the vast majority of wine drinkers, wine appreciation often goes no further than “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” There is absolutely no shame in that and the best wine in the world is the one you like best, regardless of its price or what some ‘expert’ or ‘connoisseur’ thinks of it.

For regular wine drinkers—those who may have some wine with their dinner every evening or several times a week, we do develop preferences and with experience comes a degree of discernment. We may find that we like drier wines or sweeter wines, wines with more or less tannin, or more or less oak. We also develop likings for specific grape types, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, Syrah or Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, etc, etc. The wines we prefer today may not be the same a year or two from now or those we preferred a year or two ago. We may even develop preferences for certain styles of wine or wines from certain countries or regions.

I spent several years quite fixated on Italian wines, trying as many different ones as I could find. I even once explained to a friend who asked about my obsession with all those Italian wines that it was like learning about Italy through the different wines from the different regions. You can taste the differences in soil, climate and even culture. Even today when I sip a glass of Morellino I can recall the scents and smells of the region, which is located on the western coast of Tuscany.

I have never been able to develop much of a skill of identifying specific flavours in wine—at least not past the very basic elements of citrus or berries, etc—even after 30 years of wine tasting. My daughter is far better at it with almost no experience. She can separate raspberries from strawberries, peaches from apricots and even identify different floral scents. I think there must be some in-born talent for that skill (and she clearly did not inherit it from me). Robert Parker is perhaps the most renowned for it—when you read a note such as, “with sweet mulberry, black currant and cherry notes intermixed with tobacco leaf, cedar, resin, and licorice,” you can understand what I mean. He can also recall any of the over 10,000 wines he has tasted with a photographic memory. No wonder his sense of smell is insured for millions of dollars. It is one thing to be able to detect different flavours but quite another to be able to say precisely what they are.

For my own part, having tasted thousands of wines from all over the world for over 30 years I have developed my own system for evaluating wines and one I think is very useful and accessible to us ‘normal’ people. I think it is a reliable guide to the intrinsic quality of wine—regardless of whether one happens to like the particular flavours or not.

The system applies to all the steps of wine tasting and evaluation, from the initial smelling to the aftertaste. The elements of the system consist of ‘complexity’, ‘balance’ and ‘finesse’. Of these, balance is the most vital as it is the first and foremost characteristic of well-made wine. Balance refers to fruit, alcohol and tannin and how these three essential characteristics come together. When evaluating a wine we are usually looking for obvious flaws. Once there are no obvious flaws we can move on to other characteristics.

On the nose wines differ in the complexity of their smell. If you can detect several scents as opposed to just one it suggests the wine has some depth of character. Likewise on the palate. There is nothing wrong with a straightforward wine—in fact that may be exactly what you are looking for when choosing a wine to go with simple food like pizza or pasta or stewed chicken. However, straightforward wines should not command big bucks. When you spend ample dollars on a wine you expect the wine to have some complexity, something to keep your interest and make you want to sip it again and again.

Complexity however cannot stand by itself. It is only a marker of quality when it also has finesse, which is when the multiple flavours make up a satisfying whole.

When these characteristics come together in a wine it is usually accompanied by a long and delicious finish, an aftertaste that is pleasant and satisfying and one which appeals as much to one’s intellect and emotions as to one’s taste buds.

So without getting too technical or academic, those are my markers of a fine wine. When I refer to a wine as sexy, ‘luxurious’ or ’emotional’, you can be sure it has touched more than my taste buds. Such wines are not for drinking every day but they can and do make special occasions very special indeed.

Making Sense of Terroir

“Knowing in part may make a fine tale,
but wisdom comes from seeing the whole.”—Asian Proverb

And so it is with the concept of ‘terroir’, that hazy, intellectually-appealing notion that a plot of soil plays the determining factor in a wine’s character. The French are the world’s most obsessed people regarding the issue of terroir. And why not? Many of that country’s most renowned vineyards are part of an elabourate hierarchy of quality based on their soil and exposition. And the French would have everyone believe that no one on planet Earth can equal the quality of their Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Syrah, etc. because their privileged terroir is unequaled. One of France’s most celebrated wine regions, Burgundy, is often cited as the best place to search for the fullest expression of terroir. Followers of terroir (the terroirists) argue that a particular piece of ground and its contribution to what is grown there give its product a character that is distinctive and apart from that same product grown on different soils and slopes. Burgundy, with its classifications of grand cru and premier cru vineyards, village vineyards and generic viticultural areas, is the terroirists ‘raison d’etre’.

Lamentably, terroir has become such a politically-correct buzzword that in some circles it is an egregious error not to utter some profound comments about finding ‘a sense of somewhereness’ when tasting a Vosne-Romanée-Les Malconsorts or a Latricières-Chambertin. Leading ‘terroirists’ such as wine producer Lalou Bize-Leroy, Burgundy wine broker Becky Wasserman, and author Matt Kramer make a persuasive and often eloquent case about the necessity of finding, as Kramer puts it, “the true voice of the land” in order for a wine to be legitimised.

Yet like so many things about wine, especially tasting it, there is no scientific basis for anything Bize, Wasserman, or Kramer propose. What they argue is what most Burgundians and owners of France’s finest vineyards give lip service to—that for a wine to be authentic and noble it must speak of its terroir.

Terrior Only One Factor of Wine Character

On the other side of this issue are the ‘realists’, or should I call them modernists. They suggest that terroir is merely one of many factors that influence the style of a wine. The realists argue that a multitude of factors determine a wine’s style, quality, and character. Soil, exposition, and microclimate (terroir) most certainly impart an influence, but so do the following:

  1. Rootstock: Is it designed to produce prolific or small crop levels?
  2. Yeasts: Does the winemaker use the vineyard’s wild yeasts or are commercial yeasts employed? Every yeast, wild or commercial, will give a wine a different set of aromatics, flavor, and texture.
  3. Yields and Vine Age: High yields from perennial overcroppers result in diluted wine. Low yields, usually less than two tons per acre or 35-40 hectoliters per hectare, result in wines with much more concentration and personality. Additionally, young vines have a tendency to overproduce, whereas old vines produce small berries and less wine. Crop thinning is often employed with younger vineyards to increase the level of concentration.
  4. Harvest Philosophy: Is the fruit picked underripe to preserve more acidity, or fully ripe to emphasise the lushness and opulence of a given varietal?
  5. Vinification Techniques and Equipment: There are an amazing number of techniques that can change the wine’s aromas and flavors. Moreover, equipment choice (different presses, destemmers, etc.) can have a profound influence on the final wine.
  6. Élévage (or the wine’s upbringing): Is the wine brought up in oak barrels, concrete vats, stainless steel, or large oak vats (which the French call foudres)? What is the percentage of new oak? All of these elements exert a strong influence on the wine’s character. Additionally, transferring wine (racking) from one container to another has an immense impact on a wine’s bouquet and flavor. Is the wine allowed to remain in long contact with its lees (believed to give the wine more aromatic complexity and fullness)? Or is it racked frequently for fear of picking up an undesirable lees smell?
  7. Fining and Filtration: Even the most concentrated and profound wines that terroirists consider quintessential examples of the soil can be eviscerated and stripped of their personality and richness by excessive fining and filtering. Does the winemaker treat the wine with kid gloves, or is the winemaker a manufacturer/processor bent on sculpturing the wine?
  8. Bottling Date: Does the winemaker bottle early to preserve as much fruit as possible, or does he bottle later to give the wine a more mellow, aged character? Undoubtedly, the philosophy of when to bottle can radically alter the character of a wine.
  9. Cellar Temperature and Sanitary Conditions: Some wine cellars are cold and others are warm. Different wines emerge from cold cellars (development is slower and the wines are less prone to oxidation) than from warm cellars (the maturation of aromas and flavours is more rapid and the wines are quicker to oxidise). Additionally, are the wine cellars clean or dirty?

These are just a handful of factors that can have extraordinary impact on the style, quality, and personality of a wine. As the modernists claim, the choices that man himself makes, even when they are unquestionably in pursuit of the highest quality, can contribute far more to a wine’s character than the vineyard’s terroir. If one listens to Robert Kacher, a realist, or to Matt Kramer, a terroirist, it is easy to conclude they inhabit different worlds. But the irony is that in most cases, they tend to agree as to the Burgundy producers making the finest wines.

Distinctive Style

If you are wondering where I stand on terroir, I do believe it is an important component in the production of fine wine. However, I would argue that the most persuasive examples of terroir do not arise from Burgundy, but rather, from Alsace. If one is going to argue terroir, the wine has to be made from exceptionally low yields, fermented with only the wild yeasts that inhabit the vineyard, brought up in a neutral medium, such as old barrels, cement tanks, or stainless steel, given minimal cellar treatment, and bottled with little or no fining or filtration.

For example, if I were to take up the cause of the terroirists, I would use one of Alsace’s greatest domaines, that of Leonard and Olivier Humbrecht, to make a modest case for terroir. The Humbrechts do everything to emphasise the differences in their vineyard holdings. Yet in a blind tasting, why is it so easy to identify the wines of Zind-Humbrecht? Certainly their Hengst-Riesling tastes different than their Riesling from Clos St.-Urbain. The question is, is one tasting the terroir, or the winemaker’s signature? Zind-Humbrecht’s wines, when matched against other Alsatian wines, are more powerful, richer, and intense. Zind-Humbrecht’s yields are lower and they do not filter the wine at bottling. Yet this is a case where the wines not only possess an identifiable winemaker’s signature, but also a distinctive vineyard character.

Lalou Bize-Leroy of the Domaine Leroy is often cited as the pre-eminent terroirist. She is a persuasive woman and talks a mighty game when it comes to how her vineyard parcels impart specific characteristics to her wines. But when Bize’s wines are evaluated in blind tastings, the obvious conclusion is that she fashions more concentrated and ageworthy red burgundies than her peers. Once a taster is familiar with the style of her wines (there are subtle differences) Leroy’s wines can be easily identified in a blind tasting because of their power, purity, richness, and exceptional intensity rather than by any particular terroir characteristic. The same can be said for many of Burgundy’s finest producers. Anyone who is familiar with the style of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti can usually pick a DRC wine out of a blind tasting because of the singular style of its winemaking. Winemaker Jacques Seysses, a producer who received a five-star rating in my book on Burgundy, and someone I admire tremendously, runs up the terroir flag as fast as any Frenchman, saying, “man can destroy, not create.” Seysses, who utilises 100% new oak for all of his grand crus, produces wines of extraordinary finesse and elegance. However, when tasted, his wines are dominated by his own winemaking autograph and can be picked out, not because they emanate from vineyards such as Clos de la Roche, Clos St.-Denis, or Bonnes Mares, but because of his distinctive style.

Terroir, as used by many of its proponents, is often a convenient excuse for upholding the status quo. If one accepts the fact that terroir is everything, and is essential to legitimise a wine, how should consumers evaluate the wines from Burgundy’s most famous grand cru vineyard, Chambertin? This thirty-two acre vineyard boasts twenty-three different proprietors. But only a handful of them appear committed to producing an extraordinary wine. Everyone agrees this is a hallowed piece of ground, but I can think of only a few producers – Domaine Leroy, Domaine Ponsot, Domaine Rousseau, Domaine des Chézeaux (Ponsot makes the wine for Chézeaux) – that produce wines that merit the stratospheric reputation of this vineyard. Yet the Chambertins of three of these producers, Leroy, Ponsot, and Rousseau, are completely different in style. The Ponsot wine is the most elegant, supple, and round, Leroy’s is the most tannic, backward, concentrated, and meaty, and Rousseau’s is the darkest-colored, most dominated by new oak, and most modern in style, taste, and texture. Among the other eighteen or twenty producers (and I am not even thinking about the various negociant offerings) what Burgundy wine enthusiasts are likely to encounter on retailers’ shelves ranges from mediocre to appallingly thin and insipid. What wine, may I ask, speaks for the soil of Chambertin? Is it the wine of Leroy, the wine of Ponsot, the wine of Rousseau?

Arguments such as this can be made with virtually any significant Burgundy vineyard. Consider Corton-Charlemagne and the products of four of its most celebrated producers. The firm of Faiveley owns the most prized parcel atop this famous hill, and they make a compellingly elegant Corton-Charlemagne. Stylistically, it is the antithesis of the super-concentrated, lavishly oaky, broadly flavored, alcoholic Corton-Charlemagne made by Louis Latour. Again, Domaine Leroy makes a backward, hard, tough Corton-Charlemagne that resembles a tannic red more than a white wine. Domaine Coche-Dury makes a wine with extraordinary mineral components, as well as remarkable richness, unctuosity, and opulence where the oak takes a back seat to the wine’s fruit and texture. Which of these Corton-Charlemagnes has that notion of “somewhereness” that is raised by the terroirists to validate the quality of a vineyard?

Are terroirists kindergarten intellectuals who should be doing more tasting and less talking? Of course not. But they can be accused of naively swallowing the tallest tale in Burgundy. On the other hand, the realists should recognise that no matter how intense and concentrated a wine can be from a modest vineyard in Givry, it will never have the sheer complexity and class of a Vosne-Romanée grand cru from a conscientious producer.

In conclusion, think of terroir as you do salt, pepper, and garlic. In many dishes they can represent an invaluable component, imparting wonderful aromas and flavours. But if consumed alone, they are usually difficult to swallow. Moreover, all the hyperventilation over terroir obscures the most important issue of all – identifying and discovering those producers who make wines worth drinking and savouring!

How to Really Taste Wine

1. Complexity

The single greatest standard used in assessing the quality of a wine is complexity. The more times you can return to a glass of wine and find something different in it—in the bouquet, in the taste—the more complex the wine. The very greatest wines are not so much overpowering as they are seemingly limitless.

Complexity is not an arbitrary standard. We are, in fact, set up to respond favorably to it. We have big brains and cortexes. We know from decades of work in experimental psychology that over a period of time, we always seek more complex stimuli.

In music, we invariably progress from the simple, or the ‘banal’ as one researcher referred to nursery rhymes, to more complex melodic patterns. It appears that we favour—relish might be a more descriptive, if less exact term—uncertainty or lack of predictability. One researcher contends that uncertainty in music is complexity. And that uncertainty gives greater “meaning” to music.

Complexity is more than multiplicity. For a wine (or a melody) to be truly satisfying, especially after repeated exposure, it must continually surprise us (uncertainty) and yet we must still be able to grasp these surprises as part of a larger and pleasing pattern.

So it is with wine. A multiplicity of flavors and aromas without some sort of cohesion becomes jarring and eventually irritating. True complexity keeps surprising us, but never fatigues us. That’s no small trick. But it’s one that the world’s greatest wines regularly pull off—and it’s why they’re so acclaimed as the greatest.

2. Texture

This is a feature of wine that too often is overlooked. Yet pay attention to texture, as it may be the most important ‘hidden’ feature of wine quality. This is especially true with white wines; one of the ‘giveaways’ to quality (and potential longevity) in dry white wines is revealed by texture.

If you have the privilege of tasting white Burgundies made in the 1950s or earlier, you will be surprised to discover how thick and dense the texture of those Chardonnay wines is. What made it so? Very low yields and small berry size. These features also were (and are) critical to longevity. Simply put, texturally thin wines are a giveaway to dilute flavors and short life span, never mind the gussying-up of a lot of new oak and showy flavours from lees stirring. Texture tells the tale.

3. Midpalate Density

Every taster has his or her go-to feature. For some it’s bouquet. For others it’s a wine’s finish, whether it’s short or long, intense or faint. For me, it’s midpalate density.

The midpalate feature is sometimes hard for tasters to recognize. The easiest way to grasp the notion is to imagine a candy with a hard, dense center. You suck on the candy and figure that it’s soon to be gone. Then you reach that hard, dense center and you discover that there’s a lot more yet to come. Voilà! Midpalate density.

For you Pilates types, think of midpalate density as core strength. Without it, a wine is weak. Wines, like trees, die from the inside out. If a wine lacks midpalate density, it will, over time, prove to be shallow and merely showy. Midpalate density comes from the vineyard, rather than from the winemaking. It’s a creation of low yields and small berries, often from old vines. I consider it absolutely essential in assessing both a wine’s probable longevity and its potential greatness.

4. Proportion

The element of proportion is easily grasped. A wine, like an attractive person, should be reasonably proportionate. It shouldn’t finish ‘short’. You should have a sense of the wine’s flavours being metered out to you in roughly equal amounts and time spans: the scent, the beginning taste, the midpalate and, critically, the finish.

Sometimes, especially with very young wines, these proportions can be skewed and later come into greater equality. But with a mature wine, you should expect reasonable proportion. If it’s not present, then the wine is either on its way out or it never had the stuffing of real quality to begin with.

5. Finesse

The feature of finesse is a favourite of mine. It’s something I look for almost obsessively. Finesse is how the flavours of a wine are delivered. Imagine a lay-up in basketball where the player drives toward the basket, gracefully leaps up and the ball rolls off his fingertips and falls effortlessly into the net. That’s finesse. That’s how wines should deliver themselves to you. Without finesse, wines are clunky, never mind how much complexity they might have. Finesse, like good manners, is essential to refinement.

6. Balance

The concept of balance means different things to different tasters. It’s one of those classic you-know-it-when-you-see-it qualities. At its most basic, balance refers to an equilibrium created by roughly equal amounts of fruitiness and acidity in wine (and sweetness in a sweet wine).

Balance is essential in that it makes a wine invigorating to us. A wine that lacks balance palls very quickly. We sense it almost from the first sip. It’s not easily measurable and it’s far from exact. A wine, unlike a ballerina, is not either in balance or out. There’s always a range in what constitutes balance for every person.

In recent years, as wines have become more alcoholic as a result of grapes picked at high ripeness levels, the concept of balance has come to include a wine’s ability to ‘balance out’ its alcohol level with buffering fruit density. This is why balance has become such a prominent term in today’s wine vocabulary.

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