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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 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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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!

The Three Ws of Wine

Robert Parker is one of the most knowledgeable and influential wine critics in the world.  Here’s a piece from his website,, that I find very useful and educational. I would encourage anyone serious about learning more about wine to subscribe to his site and also purchase his wine guides.

The subject of wine is so vast it can easily be intimidating for those of us just beginning to understand and enjoy it. This guide will help you develop a basic perspective on wine and serve as a useful tool for choosing a wine tableside or in your favorite wine store.

I encourage you to broaden your wine horizons. Don’t always play it ‘safe’ with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Chardonnay. While these are very important grape varieties, they’re only the tip of the iceberg.

Also consider trying something other than California wines. Otherwise you’ll miss out on the many exciting and affordable wines being produced in regions like Australia, South America, Spain, Italy, and the South of France.

It’s as easy as remembering the three Ws of wine!

What Type of Grape?

When we’re talking about the ‘What’ of wine, we’re talking about what wine is made from: grapes! Grape varieties largely determine important factors such as color, body, character, flavor, when you should drink it and its tannin level.

Together these factors also influence the foods a wine best complements. I don’t believe in rigid rules in this regard, but I’ll give you some general guidance for food pairings with each variety.

Keep in mind some wine labels tell you what grapes the wine was made from. But this isn’t always the case—particularly with wines from France. For example, many people who love to drink Chardonnay from California are surprised to learn that white wines from Burgundy are made from the same grape.

Where were the Grapes Grown?

Differences in climate and soil have a dramatic impact on the taste of wines made from the same grape. This isn’t quite the whole story since winemaking techniques vary around the world and definitely impact the final result. However, paying attention to where the grapes were grown will definitely help you orient yourself and figure out the flavor profiles you prefer.

When were the Grapes Grown?

A wine’s vintage influences its quality. All other things being equal, the higher the quality of grapes, the better the wine. In general, grapes do best when the climate is hot and relatively dry, particularly in the late summer and fall. Too cool and they may not ripen. Too wet and they may be diluted or rot.

Paying attention to vintage is important when you are faced with a list of unfamiliar wines. Knowing that the Northern Rhône had a great vintage in 2003 or that Bordeaux produced great wines in 2005 can increase your chances of making a good choice. Knowing that the harvest was disastrous in the Southern Rhône in 2002 can help you avoid disappointment.

Cover photograph by Aline Ponce from Pixabay. Used through a Creative Commons licence.

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